Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Gareth Edwards
In what will surely be a yearly tradition until the day we all die, Disney has given us our holiday present in the form of another Star Wars movie. We’re only at two so far which means they PROBABLY aren’t gonna start half-assing these just yet, and in fact this one seems to be willing to take a few more risks than what we would normally expect from franchise features like this. Okay, the fact that it’s a one-time spin off means that they’re only so much damage this can do if it blows up in their faces, but the tone of the trailers and the nature of the story they’re telling at least inspires some hope that the franchise has gotten so big that they’re willing to let it take some chances. Does this experiment in growing the series turn out to be a total success, or will this somehow be the worst prequel yet? Okay, I kind of doubt that’s even possible, but you never know!
The movie begins a long time ago in a galaxy far far away where little Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon) has her life completely uprooted when her family is found by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) who is a high ranking member of the galactic empire. Why did this guy hunt halfway around the galaxy for them? Well it turns out that Jyn’s father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is an Empire scientist who defected and they need him back to finish some super weapon they’re working on. The good news is that Jyn manages to escape the Empire with the help of a family friend Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). The bad news is that her mother (Valene Kane) got killed in the process and dear old dad got kidnapped. Flash forward to sometime later where we meet grown up Jyn (Felicity Jones) who’s been rebellious youth-ing all around the galaxy and winds up at Rebel headquarters where they have a proposition for her. Go with the rebel agent Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to find her father and stop him from finishing the Death Star as he seems to be looking for a way out once again. Okay, it’s not QUITE that simple, but that’s the basic idea of what they’re trying to do! Anyway, they’ll point her in the right direction in the hopes that her skills and connections will kill two birds with one stone; she gets her dad back and they get to stop the Space Nuke from being completed. Of course, nothing is as easy as it seems and there’s plenty of treachery to go around as the mission becomes only more difficult once the Empire get wind of what they might be up to. Can Jyn save her farther before the Empire find out if he’s been undercutting their progress on the super weapon this entire time? Does Cassian have a hidden agenda that he’s not telling Jyn about? On a scale of one to Vader, how screwed are they?
Maybe it’s not AS good as The Force Awakens, but then none of these movies need to be that good or even that type of movie to be entertaining and successful. For those who were annoyed that the last film was too much like A New Hope, this is certainly unlike any other Star Wars film ever made, but I think it also captures the spirit of what that original film was trying to do; namely bring back larger than life film heroes that were popular in the early days of cinema and place them in a fantastical space setting. Instead of pulling from action serials though, this one is re-imagining spy thrillers (mostly Cold War era stuff) as they would work in the Star Wars universe, and while I think it indulges just a bit TOO much in those clichés, it’s still probably the best direction to take the non-numbered Star Wars movies going forward. We’ll have to see what they end up doing in future films but this could be what ultimately allows Star Wars to overtake Marvel as the dominant pop culture focal point as they’re already willing to take certain risks here that the other big dog has been less willing to do over its past decade of popularity. Not everything about this movie works and it’s not even close to the kind of game changer I felt The Force Awakens was, but it’s a great sign of things to come and only makes me more excited to see what they end up doing next with the franchise, though I’m not too keen on that Han Solo sequel that’s already in the pipeline.
What ultimately works about this movie is what you expect to work in a movie that’s THIS big being backed by a studio that is known for dotting their T’s and crossing their I’s when it comes to the films they release. Everything looks great, the music fits right in with the Star Wars aesthetic, and you’ve got a bunch of super talented actors doing their jobs with the roles they’ve been given. Like the Marvel movies, it’s become boilerplate and somewhat unnecessary to point out that Star Wars looks amazing and that the direction is solid, but that’s still a hell of lot more than can be said about a lot of other films not under the Mouse House, so it’s still worth pointing out (as obvious as it is) that this is one of the best made movies of the year. Disney paid A LOT to get the Star Wars license and say what you will about them, but they know how to think in the long term. While it would probably be financially advantageous to be pumping out sequels every four or five months, they know that overexposure will lead to diminishing returns and overstraining their production teams would only lead to worse and less profitable products. Whether or not they can keep up their current pace of one film a year from alternating groups (the exact same formula Call of Duty was working from for a while there), it’s at least been proven to work so far as this movie doesn’t feel like it’s rushed to be a placeholder to keep the masses satisfied until Rian Johnson finishes episode eight.
So obviously this is a great film that everyone should (and probably will) go out to see. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about some of the more interesting stuff which, unfortunately, means we will be getting into light spoilers from here on out. The trailers already revealed that Darth Vader was going to be in the movie, so how does that cameo work out? Honestly, not as good as you hoped and probably what we should have been expecting. Look, the last time we saw him in all his glory he was saying one of the most embarrassing lines in movie history, so the goal here would obviously be to gain some of his edge back and to make him a credible movie villain once again. Instead of doing that, the movie just lets him rest on his laurels and his one big scene in the middle ends up being of no real significance and isn’t all that interesting. I’m racking my head to think of what was accomplished in that scene, and all I can come up with is the primary villain in this movie getting a somewhat threatening pep talk. Now there IS a scene at the end that lets him do his bad ass thing which goes a long way to making him scary again (and making the force that much more powerful), but it’s too little too late; especially after that first scene was such a dud. More interesting than Vader’s return though is that they actually brought back Grand Moff Tarkin who you may recall was played by Peter Cushing in the original film. Now how did they bring him back you might ask? Well rather than get someone who looks like Peter Cushing (it can’t be THAT hard to find), they used a digital recreation that honestly is the closest we’ve gotten to a convincing animated human onscreen. It took me a while to figure out because I thought he looked off right away but was thinking it was a slightly off looking actor rather than the guy being made from computers, but as the movie goes along it becomes clear that he was a special effect. People are already arguing whether this is some sort of crime against art, but for me I just love the idea of Peter Cushing being iconic enough to this franchise that they went the extra mile to not only recreate him in CG but to give him a sizable role in the picture. I’m sure those who have a problem with this sort of use of someone’s likeness after they’ve died have legitimate points and I can see where this could go horribly wrong if it becomes a trend, but I absolutely loved it here and thought his performance (the voice was supplied by Guy Henry) was one of the best in the movie.
Speaking of great performances, you’ve got Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as best buddies stealing every scene they’re in (both in terms of action and screen presence), Mads Mikkelsen playing a good guy for once which is still kinda creepy but awesome at the same time, and Forest Whitaker as the space version of a crazed mountain man; hiding in the hills from government agents and probably selling space moonshine to pay for his militia. The cast in this movie is unbelievably good and the only real complaint I have against any of them here is that, by the nature of this being a one off film, they aren’t gonna be showing up in future installments. If there were any weak points (and I’m stretching to even call them that), I’d say that our three central figures of Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, and the bad guy Orson Krennic don’t have as much screen presence as their larger than life sidekicks; the aforementioned Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen for the former two, and Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin for the latter. I can sort of forgive it for the bad guy as we already know the Empire is chock full of generic British dues, but I kinda wish Felicity Jones and Diego Luna had a bit more going for them that what is painfully obvious on the surface. Both are hard asses forged in the fires of galactic imperialism and shitty childhoods, but Jyn’s abandonment issues and Cassian’s Soldier’s Guilt just aren’t enough to keep them from feeling like spy film clichés; so much so that they ACTUALLY have the “I’m coming with you” “No you’re not” bit that’s older than the original trilogy itself.
Despite those minor stumbling blocks and the film being drawn out just a tad in the third act, this is a really fun and interesting take on the universe and feels just different enough from the rest of the Star Wars cinematic canon so as to justify its own existence outside of the core series. It’s a much darker tale than we’ve seen before and it focuses a lot more on the human toll this rebellion is taking on those fighting for it. In A New Hope, they blew up a planet and we didn’t feel much for it. Hell, they did the same thing in The Force Awakens and we STILL didn’t feel it. In this movie when they do something similar but on a MUCH smaller scale? You feel it. Maybe it’s not a HUGE gut punch, but it does have an impact and it’s those moments where characters are forever scarred and changed by their experiences (or they tell us how they were scarred and changed by previous experiences) is where this movie manages to come into its own and feel like a genuine part of this universe only from a much bleaker point of view. That and this movie has A LOT of ground warfare which I don’t recall seeing much of in the original trilogy and was intentionally made silly in the prequels.
There are other interesting things in this movie to talk about like Alan Tudyk as a robot or the retro sci-fi aesthetic that tries to recreate the original, but with this being a Star Wars movie, I think the point is moot. Go see the damn thing because you know you’re going to and it really is worth seeing. In a year that gave us big budgeted disasters like Batman v Superman, Legend of Tarzan, and Warcraft, it’s worth pointing out whenever the big movie of the moment ACTUALLY has artistic merit, and Disney has pulled it off once again. Whether or not it’s as good as The Force Awakens (the third act does end up dragging in a few spots and the clichés are less endearing here), it’s still one of the better movies of the year and is absolutely worth your time. We’re gonna be stuck with these movies until the end of time presumably, so we might as well enjoy them while they’re still good. At some point, they’re just gonna run out of ideas and we’ll be getting the gritty Jar Jar Binks reboot or whatever, so let’s appreciate what we’ve got right now.
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