When I first heard that Disney and Lucasfilm were planning on doing a film about the raid to steal the Death Star plans (taking place immediately before the events of “A New Hope”), I was incredibly excited. In a series so overwhelmingly focused on the trials and tribulations of a single family, “Rogue One” as a concept had the potential to be a real breath of fresh air. In the original trilogy and prequels alike, the enlisted guys with blasters and goofy helmets were never more than poorly-trained cannon fodder for the protagonists to throw around – here was a golden opportunity for the Star Wars cinematic universe to expand in a way it never had before, by telling the story of the grit and determination of the ordinary soldiers who made the Rebel Alliance’s victories possible.
I’ve seen the movie twice now, and I can say with confidence that on the whole, it succeeds wonderfully. It’s far from a perfect film (it is Star Wars, after all), and on the second viewing the flaws were more pronounced, but at its core, “Rogue One” delivers a compelling story about the sacrifice of (relatively) everyday people in the face of brutal tyranny, unimaginable odds, and near-certain death – a heartfelt, thrilling film with real stakes and mortal peril, and just enough humor to lighten the mood and endear you to the characters.
Oh, and the last hour is devoted to the hands-down best action sequence in any Star Wars film, immediately followed by perhaps one of the best scenes in the entire franchise, hands down.
I should warn you that this review is going to be filled with spoilers – so if you haven’t seen the film, turn back now.
SPOILER LINE ————————————————————LAST WARNING SERIOUSLY————————————————-OKAY FINAL FINAL WARNING GUYS——————————————
The Not So Good
So, since there are (blessedly) fewer bad things than good things to discuss, and I generally prefer starting with bad news, what didn’t work about Rogue One? In short, first act pacing – by attempting to introduce us to Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, K-2SO, Bodhi Rook, Chirrut Imwe, and Baze Malbus all in different locations back-to-back, the film has to make sacrifices in character development and narrative flow that, while not fatal to the film, are ultimately unnecessary.
The opening sequence of scenes, as it relates to these characters, goes more or less like so:
- Jyn backstory on one planet (1)
- Jyn in Imperial prison on another planet (2)
- Cassian, on yet another completely different planet (3), finding out about the Death Star/Bodhi and doing questionable things in crowded outworld marketplace
- Bodhi being taken to Saw Guerrera on Jedha (4)
- Jyn on prison planet transport –> rescue –> K-2SO introduction
- Jyn Yavin 4 interrogation (5)
- Cassian, Jyn, and K-2SO fly back to Jedha –> street battle ensues, Chirrut and Baze introduction
- Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi in rebel extremist prison –> message from Galen to Jyn, destruction of Jedha –> flight to Eadu (6)
- Eadu bombing, Jyn/Cassian argument
- Second Yavin 4 meeting
The Krennic/Tarkin and Krennic/Vader scenes are in here too, but I want to focus on this scene progression since whether or not you care about the main rag-team team of misfits makes or breaks one’s enjoyment of this film.
Simply put, there is no reason for the main characters to start so far apart. Imagine a sequence of events like this, instead:
- Jyn backstory, more or less as is.
- Jyn wakes up on imperial prisoner transport in Jedha, and makes her own escape (i.e. is not rescued yet by the Rebel Alliance) – she was brought to Jedha because the Empire figured out who she really is and want to use her to help lure Saw Guerrera out of hiding.
- Cassian, on Jedha following a tip, learns about the Bodhi and the Death Star and does questionable things in a crowded marketplace. We also meet K-2SO. They receive orders to extract the pilot from Saw by any means necessary.
- Street battle takes place largely as-is, but without Cassian. Jyn, seeking out Saw of her own accord, is saved by Chirrut and Baze, and in the aftermath makes contact with Saw by showing Kyber Crystal necklace and verifying her identity – unbeknownst to her, she was allowed to escape intentionally and is being surveilled by the Empire. She is hooded and taken to the extremist hideout.
- Cassian and K-2SO in extremist jail (comic relief – they were already captured) – some insight into Cassian’s history as told through K-2SO’s blunt honesty.
- Chirrut and Baze are thrown into an adjoining cell with Bodhi. Chirrut gets Bodhi to talk about defection (flashback?).Through the bars, they see Jyn being led to Saw.
- Confrontation between Jyn and Saw – Saw plays the message. Jyn’s cynicism begins to melt.
- Destruction of Jedha, because they want to test the weapon/can wipe out all of Saw’s rebels at once now. Cassian/K-2SO break out in the confusion, take Bodhi. Chirrut/Baze say “We can’t leave without Jyn!”. Cassian realizes the connection to Galen and interrupts Saw and Jyn, taking her reluctantly to the ship: “You come with me or you die here”. Saw, too crippled to keep up and too tired of fighting, goes down with his fortress. Main crew makes the jump to hyperspace.
- Main crew arrives on Yavin 4. Cassian explains to Mon Mothma et al who Jyn is. Small council interrogates/deliberates about what to do with her, decides to send her on the mission to extract her father. Jyn, who was being held/treated poorly as an Imperial collaborator, hasn’t told them about Galen’s message because she’s not sure she wants to help them.
- Mission to Eadu. As in the film, Cassian has secret orders to assassinate Galen Erso. Events continue largely as they are in the film. Death of Galen.
- Confrontation between Jyn and Cassian – Jyn, enraged, pulls a blaster on Cassian. Cassian, heretofore seemingly just a useful scoundrel, puts himself at her mercy with his hands up, and convinces Jyn that while the Rebel Alliance is not perfect, what her father wanted is worth fighting for. Jyn confesses what she knows.
- Rest of film largely as-is.
There’s very little reason for the planet-hopping that happens in the first part of the film. And there’s no reason at all for there to be a long Jyn flashback and then a shorter Jyn flashback later. By confining the opening action to Jedha (save for Jyn’s flashback), you create a more streamlined way for the characters to get to know each other, as well as a more natural hierarchy of loyalties which dovetails more neatly which each character’s natural inclinations. By meeting/being saved by Chirrut and Baze first, and encountering Cassian later/only in desperation, the relationship of her trusting the former/distrusting the latter (and the Rebel Alliance generally) is stronger. There are also more intuitive gaps in the action where we can learn about our characters. The central tension of Jyn’s character arc (will she fight or will she flee?) is also given more time to fester.
All this to say that the film starts off a bit choppy – it’s so concerned with bringing its main cast together from different planets that it rushes its initial character development and only makes a little bit of time for quiet moments where characters can talk and we learn more about them.
Other things that bothered me – as neat as it was, CGI Tarkin (weirdly less bothersome the second time around, but we’re not quite there yet with these sorts of effects), Vader puns about choking (took the sails out of an otherwise sublime scene), too many characters dying to highly similar explosions (three in a row), unnecessary C-3PO/R2-D2 cameo, unnecessary Dr. Evazan/Baba cameo. Aaand that’s about it, really.
Now on to the things that I really liked about the film. First off, despite my criticism of the first act, it’s not like the first act was bad. While I think it could have been executed better, it nevertheless made me care about the characters and understand generally who they are/what their motivation is. A huge part of this aspect of the film’s success is owed to the actors, who, despite a few odd line readings (it is Star Wars, after all), deliver heartfelt, convincing performances. I particularly enjoyed seeing different sides of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance – Ben Mendelsohn’s Director Orson Krennic gave us a glimpse into the Empire’s internal ladder-climbing politics, and Diego Luna’s Captain Cassian Andor showed us that the Rebel Alliance has its own share of issues with Might-Is-Right, ends-justify-the-means ethics and tactics. Felicity Jones’ Jyn is fierce but never annoyingly so, and shows vulnerability without evincing weakness. Donnie Yen as Chirrut Inwe revives the mysticism of The Force as religio-spiritual concept that the prequels did their damndest to smother (#fuckmidichlorians), and Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO is quite simply my favorite sidekick-droid in the series.
Another element which helps paper over the film’s plotting issues in the first act is the magnificence of the cinematography, art direction, and non-Tarkin special effects. No establishing shots are standard issue in this film – from the first flyover past a planet’s rings by Krennic’s shuttle in the opening flashback to the shot of a hovering Star Destroyer through the tattered awning of a Jedha street peddler, Gareth Edwards continues to demonstrate his mastery of creating mood and tension through a sense of scale. The film manages to create effects which both fit seamlessly with the utilitarian/industrial feel of the prequels without seeming outdated, and surprise the eye without being too shiny, a big issue I had with the art direction in the prequels. Cities, spaceships, interiors, and landscapes are rendered in loving yet utterly believable detail. There are clean newbie stormtroopers, grimy, weathered troopers, elite shock troopers, wonderful spaceship designs both old and new, alien ruffians of all sorts, all taking place within a wonderful variety of planetary settings (including our first tropical planet). Special effects which should be digital were digital, and effects which should have been practical were (or at least appeared to be) practical. Even the apocalyptic explosion which results from the destruction of Jedha doesn’t really feel like a digital effect. And the decision to put Vader’s castle on Mustafar, at the site where Anakin Skywalker died and Darth Vader was truly born, is beyond inspired. More about Vader later.
If the first act struggles to keep the film together, by the time we’re all familiar with the team and it’s time to get the death star plans, the movie takes off into franchise greatness and never stops or looks back. The last hour of Rogue One, wherein the titular squad infiltrates the Imperial archives and prompts a last-minute attack by the rebel fleet, is everything you could ever want from a Star Wars action sequence. Rebels being stealthy badasses! Troopers actually killing people! AT-ATs emerging from the trees, scattering rebels to the wind! X-Wing squadrons saving the day! Y-Wing squadrons bombing all the things! Massive swarms of TIEs! Mon Calamari doing Mon Calamari things! A Hammerhead Corvette (!!!) crashing two Star Destroyers into each other! And all of it beautifully choreographed, with land, air, and space action all woven into one another seamlessly.
Another important factor that runs throughout this film is a feeling of genuine mortal peril – in, well, all of the other Star Wars films, the only time you feel like any of the main characters are in danger is when there’s a lightsaber (or two) involved. Sometimes not even then, as with the criminally wasted duel between General Greivous and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode II. In “Rogue One,” the contained narrative structure, new/likeable characters, and lack of supernatural outs (possibly with the exception of Chirrut) combine to create real, genuine tension. Your mileage may vary based on how much you connected with the characters (as I said earlier, how much you care about the main cast makes or breaks your experience of most films, but particularly this one), but every death hit home for me. Speaking of, the decision for the entire Rogue One squad to make the ultimate sacrifice was absolutely the correct one. Even in a world of hyper-futuristic gadgetry, the team simply get themselves in too deep for rescue to feel like anything like a deus ex machina – and because every death means something, the film takes on a tragic air that’s been missing from the franchise since “Return of the Jedi.”
In particular, Chirrut’s death was, for me, deeply stirring. For the entire film, we’ve seen this blind man, use the Force, Zatoichi-style, to acrobatically dodge laser blasts and thump troopers – and when he starts forward to brave enemy fire and reach the master switch, we expect more of the same. But instead, in a small but inspired twist, Chirrut simply walks slowly toward it, cane held aloft, incanting the same prayer he’s been repeating endlessly since the beginning of the film: “I am one with the Force. The Force is with me.” And indeed, the Force protects him – every laser blast that comes his way is somehow turned aside, like the disciple Peter walking on water in the Bible. It was a beautiful expression, I think, of a person completely surrendering to their faith – putting aside their own thoughts and trusting completely in something bigger than themselves.
Similarly moving were Bodhi’s death and that of Jyn and Cassian, albeit for completely different reasons. Bodhi died suddenly, the result of an almost nonchalantly-tossed thermal detonator by a trooper in passing. No heroic struggle, no last words; just another random act of mortal violence amidst chaos. We don’t see many deaths like that in films generally, let alone a space opera – Bodhi’s death represents the terrifying impartiality of violence in wartime. Jyn and Cassian, meanwhile, tapped into the well-worn but always poignant tragedy of two persons comforting each other in the face of annihilation. Wonderfully shot and acted. What more can you say?
Of course, I can’t end this already highly overstuffed review without talking about the film’s ending, and in particular, the scene with Darth Vader in the hallway, which alone is worth the price of admission. When we first learned that Darth Vader would be in Rogue One, many long-time fans were hoping that the film would include some footage of Vader in his prime and at the height of his powers, the metal-clad fear-engine juggernaut of the Dark Side. In the original trilogy, technology and the lore, frankly, were not advanced enough to show this Vader effectively. We wanted this film to reveal the Lord of the Sith we’d read about in books and comics and played as in Soul Calibur and Star Wars Battlefront. In short, this Vader:
See what I mean? On this front, “Rogue One” delivered spectacularly. Everything about the hallway scene – his being in the darkness by the glow of his lightsaber – the way he brutally, fluidly, methodically crushes the hapless rebels in front of him, was wonderful to watch, and reminded us in brutal fashion of just how far Anakin Skywalker had fallen into the clutches of the Dark Side of the Force. It was, in short, a fantastic piece of action for everyone, and a beautifully executed bit of storytelling for the fans.
So to sum up…
While “Rogue One” is certainly not a perfect film, and like all Star Wars media gains a certain amount of narrative cushion from the ubiquity of its lore (e.g. nobody has to explain what a lightsaber is), it is a good film on its own, and one of the better entries in the series. Personally, I’d place it just above “The Force Awakens” on the same level as “Return of the Jedi” in my personal series rankings. I’ll admit that I was not happy whatsoever when I heard Disney would be putting out a Star Wars film every year. But between “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One”, Disney has put the franchise back on solid footing, and if Episode VIII is half as good as it should be given that Rian Johnson is directing, the series’ best days may be yet to come. Most importantly, “Rogue One” successfully delivers on the original promise of its concept – to tell the untold story of anonymous heroes who sacrificed everything so that a farmboy from Tatooine could save the galaxy.