Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker
Directed By Gareth Edwards
My Rating: ****½:5
After the massive critical and commercial success of “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” Disney has released the first of many planned spinoff films in the form of “Rogue One.” Director Gareth Edwards has delivered a spectacular starting point for more of these spinoffs, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the previous films.
The film, which bridges the gap between the events of “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope,” details the events of the Rebel Alliance’s first major victory against the Galactic Empire in the theft of the Death Star plans. A brave group of heroes led by Jyn Erso (Jones) and Captain Cassian Andor (Luna) carry out this mission in the face of nigh-impossible odds. Helping this squadron are snarky but intelligent droid K2S0 (voice of Alan Tudyk), blind mystic Chirrut Imwe (Yen), explosive gunman Baze Malbus (Wen), communications specialist Bodhi Rook (Amhed), and Clone Wars veteran Saw Garrera (Whitaker).
Standing in their way are not only familiar villains such as Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (a CGI recreation of the late Peter Cushing), but new enemies such as Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn). The result not only strengthens the connections between the other films, but also has a surprisingly human look at the conflict. Even with clearly-established heroes and villains, the lines between good and evil are more ambiguous than one would expect them to be in the world of “Star Wars”.
Much like how “The Force Awakens” invoked memories of the original trilogy and also expanded the saga, “Rogue One” makes full use of what was given to the creative team as well as providing a few unique flourishes of its own. In behind-the-scenes material, Edwards likened the experience of directing the film to a young boy playing with “Star Wars” merchandise in their backyard. The analogy fits incredibly well, as Edwards came up with what would happen if that boy grew to be a man and was given a camera and a $200 million budget to bring his vision to life.
With many advances in special effects made since the original trilogy, “Rogue One” benefits greatly from only using CGI when it has to, primarily focusing on practical special effects. Continuing the precedent set by “The Force Awakens,” the film features lavishly-detailed sets and numerous stormtroopers (including new “Death Trooper” and “Scarif Trooper” variants) are portrayed by real stuntmen as opposed to CGI doubles.
Yet even as a film that helps strengthen the connections of the rest of the “Star Wars” saga, some of the best moments come from the smallest touches. As Edwards proved with the indie gem “Monsters,” and his dark reimagining of the “Godzilla” franchise, the story and characters are every bit as important as the visual splendor. By the time the titular “Rogue One” group finally makes their daring heist, they establish themselves as a tight-knit family that’s willing to sacrifice everything for the chance of something greater than they could ever imagine. Much like Rey before her, Jyn Erso’s arc is largely motivated by losing her parents at a young age. As her father Galen (Mikkelsen) is forced against his will to help construct the Death Star as he’s taken away by Krennic, you can easily feel the pain she goes through.
While the film is decidedly darker than “A New Hope,” it is also lighter in tone than “Revenge of the Sith.” Even as the film helps establish the Rebellion as a force to be reckoned with against the Empire, it never forgets that any important victory is never truly easy. Even when a single reactor ignition from the Death Star can destroy entire cities in a manner that makes an a-bomb look like a bottle rocket, one of the biggest moments is something as simple as Jyn and Cassian embracing on the beach in the heat of battle. Even K2S0 does genuinely want to help the rebels, warts and all.
Even with the aura of familiarity from prior films (as well as the circumstances of “The Force Awakens” being a tough act to follow), this first of many planned “Star Wars” spinoff films is still an ideal blockbuster for one of the most turbulent time periods we’ve faced in ages. Much like how the “Star Wars” mythos has been heavily influenced by “jidai geki” films and “Flash Gordon” serials, “Rogue One” continues the trend set by “Episode VII,” influenced by the entries that came before it as well as telling a new story. Come for the fun of reliving the thrill of the saga for the first time, stay for a surprisingly insightful look at the conflict. One of the great strengths of science fiction is to act as a parable for real-world events, making it a wonderful film for some of the most turbulent times in recent memory.
“Save the Rebellion! Save the dream!”
Review by Steven Pryor