Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
With the arrival of last year’s smash hit, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” the “Star Wars” franchise was back, and Lucasfilm/Disney was going to prove it. Not only were there going to be two further “episodes,” but there was also going to be a series of “Star Wars anthology” films in between said-episodes. To every “Star Wars” fan, this was great news, and while they would wait for “Episode VIII” in 2017, they were definitely going to see the first entry in the anthology: “Rogue One.”
(By the way, I know “Rogue One” is marketed as “A Star Wars Story.” That’s not how I’m going to label it. It sounds too run-of-the-mill.)
If you thought “The Empire Strikes Back” (Episode V) and/or “Revenge of the Sith” (Episode III) was dark, you haven’t seen anything yet. “Rogue One,” set just before Episode IV (which spawned the franchise in the first place), is darker, grittier, and more of a war film than we would expect from the franchise (funny, seeing how it’s called “Star WARS”). It still has its share of spectacular, rousing moments of sci-fi adventure and lighthearted, witty one-liners, but when it takes its dark turns, it gets pretty heavy. When characters are in battle, you have to be able to accept that there probably won’t be any turning back.
“Rogue One” works fine as a stand-alone film, but it’s even better when associated with the other films. Actually, those who don’t appreciate the silly turns taken in the prequels (Episodes I-III) will appreciate this film more as “the prequel we’ve been waiting for.”
The film’s heroine is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a bright, spunky, heated soldier and criminal. She’s also the daughter of scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), who tried to escape the ruthless Empire before he was forced back in to design the planet-destroying Death Star. At first, Jyn wants nothing to do with the Empire or the terrorists that follow, but when she receives a message from Galen that includes crucial information about the Death Star, she joins a group of Rebels on a mission to retrieve the original structural plans and bring them to the attention of the Alliance. (It should probably come as a surprise to no one that they succeed. But like any good movie, what really matters is how they succeed.)
Among the band of would-be heroes are badass pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), extremist Rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker), defective Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind monk warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Chirrut’s friend & fellow warrior Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and comic-relief robot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk)—a wonderfully diverse cast of characters.
Director Gareth Edwards (“Monsters,” “Godzilla”) was given some difficult tasks to perform in making this “Star Wars anthology” film—neatly tie it in to Episode IV, pay respect to George Lucas’ original vision, and make a war movie in the “Star Wars” universe. He succeeds in all three tasks. “Rogue One” is still set in the “Star Wars” universe, but it doesn’t feel entirely like what we’re used to. There’s something new and something old. It has to do with the execution, the feel of the piece, and also the way the war aspects in particular seem grounded and realistic. For example, when those giant mechanical-elephant things (and I’m sorry for forgetting what they’re called) are attacking, they’re seen from the ground perspective of the soldiers fighting them. This makes us feel the size and impending danger of these oncoming obstacles. You can feel the stakes are higher in this one.
Darth Vader returns in this one (and is again voiced by James Earl Jones), as many people were wondering before the film’s release. He’s only on screen for about five minutes total, but when he shows up…let’s just say there’s an action that reinforces the reason we were afraid of this guy.
And speaking of returning “Star Wars” characters, I can’t neglect to mention the reappearance of Grand Moff Tarkin, played in Episode IV by the late Peter Cushing. Using high-quality CGI effects, this character was brought back for somewhat of a supporting role. This easily could’ve been a downfall for the film, and yet, even though I’m distracted by the fact that this isn’t really Peter Cushing but a recreation of the deceased actor (with the aid of computers, a stand-in, and possibly a voice imitation), I have to say they did an impressive job “reviving” him and giving him a new performance. To my surprise, I buy it.
Also in terms of tying in to Episode IV, “Rogue One” managed to ingeniously resolve a flaw that has plagued many fans for decades. I won’t give it away here, but you’ll know it when you see it.
My only real problem with “Rogue One” is the villain. It’s not that Ben Mendelsohn doesn’t do fine work as Orson Krennic, the Empire’s Director of Advanced Weapons Research. But when you put him next to previous “Star Wars” villains like Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, he simply isn’t as memorable.
But the heroes are an appealing bunch. Even though Jyn is the one we grow closer to, due to knowing much of her background, the others are still fun to follow. Cassian is a dashing pilot, which would inspire shades of Han Solo, but actor Diego Luna makes the role his own. (Plus, I like how he represents a side of the Rebel Alliance that not many would expect. This guy isn’t to be messed with.) Chirrut Imwe provides many of the more awesome moments of action plus some appreciated deadpan humor. And K-2SO is a great addition—this droid doesn’t whine as much as C-3PO, and he provides the film’s biggest laughs with his snarky manner.
Oh, and a friend of mine (who is a “Star Wars” fan) says I should mention the use of composer Michael Giacchino’s replacement of John Williams’ iconic “Star Wars” score. It’s fine. It’s a bit distracting, but it still feels very “Star Wars”-ish.
Simply put, “Rogue One” is a compelling “Star Wars” entry, with riveting action, a more grounded feel, and a perfect splice of this “anthology piece” and Episode IV. This can only be the start of something great for “Star Wars”; I look forward to the next “Star Wars anthology” film in addition to Episode VIII.