A note: This review contains minor SPOILERS. Nothing earth-shattering, but if you haven’t seen ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ continue at your own risk.
By Jarrod Jones. When it comes to enjoying Star Wars, your mileage may vary. So too must it be with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Die-hard enthusiasts will undoubtedly love it. They’ll likely chuckle amongst themselves over the film’s stranger creative choices, but they will largely forgive any thematic shenanigans and bask in the splendor of it all.
People who don’t enjoy Star Wars, however, aren’t about to become converts through Rogue One. With the myriad Easter Eggs, cameos, and references to movies sandwiched around Rogue One, I can’t say that I blame them. Star Wars movies are less films than they are expertly realized events. They further a brand these days more than they further a legend. Rogue One (and most certainly last year’s The Force Awakens) can be considered an opulent Star Wars celebration, distilled down to its purest essence.
The multitudes of casual moviegoers, who have a strong awareness of the Star Wars lore but don’t label themselves devotees, will probably thrill to the more kinetic moments while shifting in their seats in an attempt to ignore the feeling that something is incredibly amiss. And make no mistake, there are definitely squirrely things to be found in Rogue One.
For one, it’s not a typical Star Wars “episode,” and, considering the gonzo retroactive tinkering at play here, thankfully it isn’t treated as one. Director Gareth Edwards lovingly sets his cameras amid the intergalactic fracas (via cinematographer Greig Fraser), making the film’s violence far more intimate (and, at times, shocking) than any installment before or after it. There are none of the Lucasian swipes or transitions, and each of the film’s planets are introduced via text. (A first for the series.) What’s frustrating about that last bit is that we’re never once required to remember the names of any of these locations, with the exception of Yavin 4, because Episode IV.
Michael Giacchino’s score works around John Williams’ symphonic framework but never once secures the operatic wonder you’d find in Return of the Jedi (or yes, even The Phantom Menace). Giacchino plays it safe with his horns and harps; the action sequences have a standard-grade propulsion, and the dramatic moments feature the tremulous plinking of piano keys. The film’s action sequences rarely play nice, and yet the music that swells around it does precisely that. It’s innocuous enough to be forgettable.
At the heart of Rogue One is Jyn Erso, played with far more nuance and depth than the script demands by Felicity Jones. Jyn is a between-prisons roustabout, with a father-sized chip on her shoulder and a predictably navigable problem with authority. When Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and the other Rebellion higher ups start rattling off Jyn’s many transgressions, you half expect them to drop her rap sheet in a fluster and ask, “Hey, Jyn, what are you rebelling against?”
It certainly isn’t the Empire, not right away anyway; Jyn’s animosities are directed at her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen, who maybe shouldn’t let Disney continue to squander his magnificence). Father Erso, in Jyn’s eyes, sold out the memory of her slain mother in order to build a super-secret weapon for the Empire’s top lackey, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Krennic, decked out in immaculate whites and a tremendous, flowing cape, would be a suitable foil for the Ersos, and for the first half of the film, he is.
It’s when the rest of this motley crew starts to crawl in from the woodwork that Rogue One takes its emotional stakes and lets it hover over the rest of the film. Diego Luna’s Cassian fares best; his stakes are intricately intertwined with Jyn’s, he most closely resembles the scrappy Rebel aesthetic of A New Hope, and he even has a sassy, brassy droid following him around (Alan Tudyk, who is spectacular and surprisingly affecting).
There’s Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who runs to the Rebellion with a message from Galen, and finds himself, for the first part of the film, at the mercy of a downright peculiar Forest Whitaker. (As one of the few characters that have crossed over from The Clone Wars, Saw Gerrera finds himself devolved into a manic, cracked mirror version of Darth Vader.) Bodhi’s role is what really gets this story underway, but he, like most everyone else in this movie, finds himself getting lost in the shuffle before long.
Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are two warriors with equal distaste for the Empire; Yen’s character is Force sensitive, which checks off the stoic mystical hero for this installment, while Wen’s character brings to the film some added firepower. Both are incredible in this film, and like everything else that is truly great about Rogue One, they are quickly broomed to the movie’s periphery. The galaxy will have no songs for these characters; no statues will be erected in their honor. But you can buy their action figures at Toys-R-Us.
Which seems to be the major thing working against Rogue One as a Star Wars story: With every successive Episode draped in the velvet robes of space opera, Rogue One strives for the visceral turmoil of a proper war film. It’s intended purpose, to bring a heavier gravity into this muppet-filled space fantasy, is undermined by its very own premise. This hard-ass rabble are here to serious up a long-running cinematic joke — why would an ultimate weapon have such an easily exploitable flaw?
Why the Death Star had such a glaring imperfection embedded within its otherwise impenetrable outer workings, it turns out, has less to do with shoddy Imperial oversight than it has to do with somebody sticking it to somebody else. For no reason other than to do it, Rogue One goes out of its way to make sense of A New Hope‘s sillier devices. If the prequel trilogy taught us anything, making sense out of three really silly movies from decades back isn’t necessarily the path to cinematic glory. But it makes plenty of money.
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, and Simon Emanuel
Screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker
Rated PG-13 because it’ll make little kids cry.
6 out of 10