Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rogue One is the first standalone spin off of the Star Wars franchise and a lot is riding on its success. Can a Star Wars with original characters stand on its own? For the most part, it is a success.

It pays tribute to the Star Wars saga while also adding a cool, grimy layer. At its heart, Rogue One is a war film, concentrating on the grunts on the ground.

The film has its flaws: A clunky first half, bad character development and themes that are introduced but never picked up again nearly derail the film. But when Rogue One hits the third act, the film truly hits its stride, creating one of the most exciting finales in any action science fiction film. This is possibly the most fun I’ve had in a theater in a long time.

A Gritty Slow Build

We follow Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a criminal forced to find her long lost engineer father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a man instrumental in the construction of The Death Star. Together with Rebel operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jyn gathers a rag tag group of outcasts and mercenaries: Reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), blind Force believer Chirrut (Donnie Yen), Chirrut’s bitter, gun toting friend Baze (Wen Jiang) and Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed). Standing in their way is the power hungry Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsehn), as he does everything he can to protect his prized weapon.

This is the perfect set up for a World War II spy thriller in the vein of Where Eagles Dare (1968) and for most of Rogue One’s run time, that is what it is. We see spies, mercenaries and grunts on the ground operating in the outskirts of the galaxy. It’s an interesting and compelling departure from the normal Star Wars fare.

One change that isn’t welcome is the soundtrack. Composed by Michael Giacchino, the music is very different from John Williams’ iconic score. It either blends into the background or becomes a distraction. It’s a relief whenever the more familiar musical cues come in.

And those cues are not the only aspects that remind us that this is a Star Wars film as there are skillfully placed callbacks to the original saga. From cool little cameos to full blown Easter eggs, your local Star Wars fanatic will most likely have fits of joy. But it’s handled perfectly  so that if you are not “in the know,” the fan service will not deter your enjoyment of the film. The epitome of this is the presence of Darth Vader. He is used perfectly and never overpowers the proceedings.

Rogue One embraces the grime of the original film and wallows in it.  The spies that we only heard about are given faces and we see that they are in shades of gray. Innocent people die at Alliance hands in the name of a greater cause.

It’s an absolutely stunning and amazing choice. The Rebellion hasn’t found it’s way yet and its failing. In the face of tyranny, a divided front is ineffective. The rebellion changes during Rogue One and it is beautiful to see.

However as some of this grime is introduced, then left hanging. The character of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is introduced on the desert world of Jedha, a holy Jedi planet that has become a warzone. Gerrera is an extremist that the Alliance has disowned and the Empire treats him as a terrorist.

It’s hard not to see the parallels to the war torn Middle East as Gerrera’s men, garbed in head wraps and relying on guerilla warfare in the streets to take down an occupying Imperial force. One man’s terrorist is another’s hero here and its an intriguing idea to bring into a Star Wars film.

But this intriguing theme is somewhat dropped and never really mentioned again. The existence of this modern commentary alone is pretty bold, but it feels like a huge missed opportunity.

The first half of the Rogue One tries to be a quick build to a huge final battle, but often falters. Pacing goes from too fast to painfully slow during the film’s second act. Characters are introduced too quickly at times (More on that later) and the film nearly falls apart because of this.

That said, once Rogue One gets to that final battle, it is amazing. The film is at its most confident here, as the action switches seamlessly between battles in space and on the ground. There is a sense of real stakes and danger through story, fan service and cinematic storytelling.

A Beautiful War

Director Gareth Edwards really does put the “War” into this Star Wars film with some raw action scenes in Rogue One. There is a little use of shaky cam, but Edwards makes sure you see and feel every shot and explosion.

There is also a sense of scale added to the Empire’s ships and vehicles, contrasting with the makeshift smallness of the Rebels. The Imperial walkers look absolutely huge in this film, towering high above the rebels. It’s a subtle visual theme that completely shapes the conflict between the two.

That said, the film is beautifully shot and is possibly the most visually accomplished Star Wars films. Edwards composes every frame meticulously, creating some absolutely gorgeous scenes.  I already examined Jedha, but we also get the dreary gloom of Eadu, a rocky and dark planet.  Yet, the true standout setting is the tropical planet of Scarif.

The scenes at Scarif are cinematic war at its most beautiful. The scenic beaches and pure blue skies are shot perfectly as the carnage unfolds in these normally peaceful settings.

A Gang of Rebels

Rogue One’s characters are the faceless, unsung heroes that the Star Wars Universe only mentioned. It’s a welcome choice to focus on non-Jedi characters struggling to fight tyranny. And while every actor is great in their role, something is always lacking.

Felicity Jones’ Jyn has the more traditional story, as her rebellious young drifter finds purpose over the course of the film. Always tough, but with a human touch, Jyn is a cool heroine. Jones effortlessly

Mads Mikkelsen is excellent as Jyn’s father Galen. He and Jones play well off each other and provide some of the more emotional moments. Mikkelsen may seem like he is underplaying his role, but it feels more like a weariness from all that he has been through.

Diego Luna’s Andor is an interesting character, one that is emblematic of many of the characters introduced in the film. He has a dashing look similar to classic heroes like Han Solo, but he has a dark side (No pun intented). Andor does some questionable things and we see it weighing on him. Luna does an amazing job showing his struggle to reconcile his actions. There is a compelling mystery and danger to the character that is very appealing.

That said, the mystery hides more than it should. Andor makes a decision later in the film that makes absolutely no sense. In a previous scene, the troubled spy makes a point to Jyn that actually makes a lot of sense. But then he completely turns around on that point for seemingly no reason. Because Andor isn’t developed properly it feels like plot convenience rather than an earned moment.

That’s the problem with every other character in the film: A lack of development. Every character is likable. Tudyk’s K-2SO is hilarious, a dark reflection of C-3PO. Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang have great chemistry together and play off each other well as the hopeful Force believer and the cynical mercenary, respectively (Not to mention being amazing fighters).  Ahmed brings a genuine, wide eyed eagerness to Bodhi’s character.

But that’s it. We don’t get a whole lot more than what I just described to you above. We never learn exactly why Yen and Jiang are friends. Nor do we learn why Bodhi defects from the Empire. You want to love these characters, but you end up only liking them.

Much of this is due to the general war theme of the film, giving us just enough characterization to tell us why they’re fighting. It’s an understandable choice that hurts some characters (Chirrut and Baze) while serving others well (Andor).

Ben Mendelsohn’s villain Krennic is an interesting villain. Like the heroes of Rogue One, he is a ground level Imperial. Don’t let his fancy white cloak fool you…he is a power hungry man grasping at any power he can get. The fact that he is a man desperate to rise in an organization as evil as the Empire makes him an extremely dangerous man. He doesn’t pose the same threat as Darth Vader, but Mendelsohn gives him a sliminess that oozes out of him.

Rogue One’s Place in A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Many will compare Rogue One to The Force Awakens, and understandably so. That film not only launched Star Wars into a new era, it was also an awesome nostalgia trip with great and memorable characters. Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and even Poe Dameron became household names for many.

I had a hard time with this review. The glaring flaws keep Rogue One from being an absolute masterpiece. While the characters are likeable, they aren’t that memorable. That said, I can’t deny the amount of fun I had with it and fans of spectacle, whether they are Star Wars fans or not, will really enjoy the experience.