Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
In a way I can't blame the aura that surrounds even films like this one, as the prices to go see films are astronomical, and many of us have less and less time to go see a movie unless we have adequate planning or know who we are seeing it with. It's why I largely see revival films these days. It also doesn't help that, when things are going wrong with a movie, predictions are often accurate. The Ghostbusters reboot died not because a few men were upset about the gender changes, but because word of mouth said that, as expected, it wasn't that good.
All this is to say that Rogue One, especially for a film in which the ending and consequences of the events have been well-known and picked over for 40 years, defied these low expectations. Yes, there are problems, which I will get to, but in large part this is as close to a decent Expanded Universe film as we are liable to get, given how much canon was wiped away by the prequels and The Force Awakens.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a prisoner in an Imperial labor camp on the planet Wobani. Years before her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was forcibly brought in to serve the Galactic Empire by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in order to build a super weapon. Her mother Lyra (Valene Kane) is killed and Imperial forces dispatched to find her. She escapes, being raised by family friend Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) before leaving the rebel cause and going out on her own.
The defection of Imperial shuttle pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) at Galen Erso's behest to warn the Rebellion about the new weapon leads to his capture by Gerrera, who by this time has broken from the Rebellion and fights with his own group on the planet of Jedha. The actual Rebellion wants to get a hold of the pilot in order to find Galen's whereabouts and assassinate him before a weapon can be built, and they employ Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to rescue Jyn in order to get an introduction to Gerrera and have him turn over the pilot.
Upon arrival in the Holy City of Jedha, where the Empire is busy stripping khyber crystals from the main temple, Gerrera's followers attack the Imperial forces, leading to an encounter with Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind priest, and his protector Baze (Wen Jiang). After the supposed defeat of the Imperials and the departure of the hovering Star Destroyer, the group is taken to Gerrera's hideout as prisoners, where Andor meets with the pilot and Jyn discovers that her father's message states that there is a built-in flaw in the construction of the weapon, known as the Death Star, that can lead to its destruction, and that the plans are located in the Imperial Archives on the planet Scarif.
After Governor Tarkin (Guy Henry) orders Krennic to prove the value of the station, the first test leads to the destruction of the Holy City, forcing an immediate escape from Jedha by Andor and his group. Rook has also revealed the location of Galen Erson as being on the planet Eado, and he is ordered by the Alliance to go there and finish his initial mission. Meanwhile, Tarkin voices his intentions to take full credit for the success of the Death Star, leading Krennic to petition Darth Vader (Spencer Wilding) to speak to the Emperor on his behalf. Vader, however, is concerned that the recent defection and other breeches have come from his research facility on Eado.
Krennic and the others arrive on Eado at the same time, with Andor crash-landing and the Alliance, fearing Andor's death, sending a strike squadron to take out the facility. Afterward, returning to Yavin IV, Andor and Jyn attempt to convince the Alliance to get the plans from Scarif, but fail, as many in the Rebellion believe that they are defeated with the arrival of the new weapon. A number of fighters decide to join Jyn and Andor for a mission of their own, leading to the Rebellion being forced to act on their behalf and one of the first large-scale engagements leading up to the events of the first Star Wars movie.
If you have seen films like The Dirty Dozen or The Dambusters, you can appreciate much of what Rogue One has to offer. At its heart it is an historical war film, as the outcome is known, but the story really focuses, true or otherwise, around those who were responsible. While the original movie set up a sort of comic-book sense of good and bad and the latter part of the first trilogy made individuals like Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine iconic villains, it has largely been up to the Expanded Universe to reveal how despicable the Galactic Empire really was, and why so many people who would typically go about their daily lives unaffected by events happening on other planets would end up caring enough to establish a successful rebellion.
We also see that the Empire's forces were not stumbling incompetents like one would come to believe from the first few films. If there is any truth to the film rumor that the main saga events are told at some point by R2-D2, with many of the facts exaggerated, this would be much closer to the truth. Though suffering heavy casualties during surprise attacks, Imperial reprisals are swift and deadly, and the hopelessness of the Rebellion is palpable. Almost every one of their successes is a Pyrrhic victory at best prior the destruction of the Death Star.
As with most war movies, there is an ensemble cast, with some members being more memorable than others. This also means that the main heroes don't do much other than be heroic and get the job done, although Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, especially the latter, do a good job of expressing the sacrifices and losses that have led to this point in their life. Ben Mendelsohn is great as Krennic, and the part is played with great subtlety in large part, with the times he has to be a sneering villain used reluctantly and because he has to make a point using terror. He feels like a person who has lost himself in his position, with his human side still fighting and reminding him, many times, that his compromises have truly destroyed him many times over.
The stand-outs on the hero side are Chirrut Imwe and Baze, the former being a blind warrior-priest (and an admitted tribute to Zatoichi) and the latter a warrior with an improvised automatic blaster. The droid K-2SO ends up with most of the best lines, largely due to his reprogramming causing him to say whatever comes to mind. Darth Vader is striking as ever, and truly villainous here. Also, he is not overused, which makes his small bit of screen time effective.
For those who are familiar with all the small details, Rogue One does a good job of filling in many of the plot holes from previous movies, from the exhaust port on the Death Star to C-3PO and R2-D2 being able to somehow move through a rain of blaster fire unharmed. Gareth Edward's set design also makes the universe the movies take place in much more understandable, combining the amazing technology to be able to fly almost anywhere in the galaxy in a matter of hours through hyperspace with the low-tech environment that most of that galaxy lives in, with computer technology that we put to shame decades ago in our own.
So, let's conclude with the problems this movie has. Since Peter Cushing's family, and Carrie Fisher herself, both allowed their features to be superimposed over the characters they played in the original, I have no problem with the fact it was done. They almost get Cushing right, but the features are still too waxy, and Fisher's is way too smooth and almost glows. It does take one right of the movie, as does the unnecessary cameo from C-3PO and R2-D2. There are also many cringeworthy lines, like the whole "rebellions are built on hope" thing. At least it's nothing like that sand speech from Attack of the Clones.
This movie would be worth seeing even without being in the context of the Star Wars universe, and it does a better job of fleshing out the story than any of the other prequels or even The Force Awakens, which I did enjoy despite many of its flaws. If early rumors had proven true and this turned out to be a dull, incomprehensible mess of CG and inappropriate cameos, it could have bombed and single-handedly killed Disney's plans for future spinoffs. I don't know what the future holds for those now inevitable movies, but for better or worse Rogue One has proven that the Star Wars EU formula can work in movie form. Just be prepared for Disney to milk it to the point that we end up with a VH-1 style documentary on Max Rebo's band at some point.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Time: 133 minutes
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Alan Tudyk, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Gareth Edwards