When Disney acquired Star Wars it announced that, in addition to the main saga films it would be putting out a line of ‘anthology’ movies set the Star Wars universe and dealing with smaller ‘side’ stories. The first of these was Rogue One, which purports to tell the story of how the Rebel Alliance got hold of the Death Star plans in the first place.
Right away the film let’s us know that it will be operating differently from a standard ‘Star Wars’ film: there is no title crawl, but instead a prologue. There are no Jedi in sight, though the Force is mentioned often. Most importantly, the tone of the film is gritty, harsh, and morally ambiguous. This is less of a fantasy than a sci-fi war movie.
The plot is that the film takes place in the days before the original ‘Star Wars.’ The Empire is putting the finishing touches on its new battle station, preparatory to unleashing it upon the galaxy, and the Rebel Alliance gets wind of it from a defector. The main character is Jin Erso, who is the daughter of the project’s chief engineer, Galen Erso. The Rebels think that she might be able to help them find and capture her father so that he can inform the Senate what the Empire is up to, though one of the Rebellion generals secretly gives the order to assassinate him before the project can be completed (more on that later). But when Jin gets a message from her father, he tells her that he secretly put a flaw in the machine that will cause it to blow up if hit in the right place, so the race is on to steal the Death Star plans to give the Alliance a fighting chance.
The first thing to notice is that while the film has its share of flaws – which we’ll get to – it is much better than The Force Awakens in just about every conceivable way. However, it would be pointless to make this simply a compare-and-contrast, so I’ll try to minimize that point. What works in the film?
In the first place, the story, though convoluted, is easy enough to follow; the Empire has the Death Star, the Rebels have to figure out how to deal with it. The stakes are clear, as are the ‘conditions:’ the heroes have to confirm the existence of the Death Star and find a way to destroy it. We already are invested because we know what the Death Star and the Empire are.
Now, some might argue that, since we know what’s going to happen – that the heroes will successfully steal the plans – there’s no tension. But the question in story is rarely whether the heroes will win: the question is how they will win, and who, if anyone, will survive. The question is less whether there is a doubt of what will happen than whether what happens is interesting to watch (otherwise there would be no point to watching a film twice or watching a film about historical events). It is about vicariously enjoying the courage, competence, and cleverness of the characters as they bring about an outcome we feel is desirable.
It helps that the film works very hard to recreate the look of the original film, though with modern technology. The attention to detail in this area is very impressive, from the grainy view through binoculars to the red eyes on Darth Vader’s mask, to even using stock footage of some of the original actors of the squadron that goes up against the Death Star, the film strives to make us believe that this is taking place shortly before the original, putting every element in its rightful place. Whether it succeeds or fails in this (and there are examples of both), the effort is clearly there and appreciated.
That is really the chief virtue of this film: that the filmmakers so clearly love and respect the originals and seem to be trying to pay sincere homage to them. A lot of this I attribute to the director, Gareth Edwards, who also made the 2014 Godzilla, another visually creative film that evinces a sincere respect for its source material. He obviously know Star Wars and loves it. He even shows basic respect to the prequels by returning to Mustaphah (where we learn Vader has his dark castle: a very nice detail and fits perfectly with the series’ pulp roots) and bringing back actor Jimmy Smits as Senator Organa.
Nor do I think this is all just cheap fan service like so much of The Force Awakens. Just as a comparison (I won’t do too many of these, promise), there’s a moment in the latter film where Finn bumps the holo-chess set on the Millennium Falcon and it briefly turns on. It’s played as a joke, with the camera lingering on his reaction before the set it switched off. Here we have a brief shot of some low-lives playing what appears to be a version of the same game with real, crudely built figures. It’s passed over in a fairly standard shot and you probably won’t even notice it unless you’re paying attention. The former bit forces the gag into the audiences face by putting it in the middle of the scene and have the character react ‘comically’ to it. It plays no role at all except to remind us of that thing we saw before. The latter bit is more subdued, doesn’t require the audience to ‘get it,’ but when you do it actually adds to the world by establishing that this is a wide-spread and popular game that is played with or without fancy technology. It isn’t brilliant, but I think it points to the difference between the two films.
As for the characters, they’re a mixed bag: easily the best is K-2SO, a re-programmed Imperial combat droid with very blunt speaking patterns who gets all the best lines (“You are being rescued. Please do not resist”). Played by the marvelous Alan Tudyk, he’s a genuinely charming and funny character, probably the best of all the Disney-made Star Wars films thus far.
There’s a blind monk who is devoutly connected to the Force and his hulking friend with a machine gun who are kind of interesting in their close friendship and diverging views of the Force (the blind guy also gets some good lines, as when he comments on being blindfolded).
The main villain of the film, Commander Krennic, is…fine. He’s sufficiently intimidating and ruthless, though is clearly out of his depth when faced with the likes of Vader and Tarkin. This gives an interesting (and consistent with the previous films) insight into the Imperial power structure, where like in C.S. Lewis’s image of Hell everyone is trying to outflank and take down everyone else. Krennic is threatening enough to be dangerous to our heroes, but a lot of the joy of the film comes from watching him squirm when he goes up against the two established villains.
Speaking of which, there’s been a lot of talk of the CGI used to resurrect the legendary Peter Cushing. Personally, I think it works well enough, though it is distracting at times. Compounding the problem is that the combination of computer and vocal impersonation simply can’t recapture the actor’s tremendous charisma and talent, making this Tarkin feel noticeably different from the one we knew in the original film. On the other hand, if they were going to tell this story at all Tarkin obviously had to be in it, and they give his character the respect he deserves: he’s every bit as cunning, as ruthless, and as fiendishly intimidating as he was in the original. I particularly like his introduction, with his back to the camera framed by the Death Star outside the window. And, besides which, even though I know it’s a fake it is good to see Peter Cushing again.
As for Vader, he doesn’t have much screen time, but again I thought they pretty much nailed his character (a stray pun being the one exception), and he’s as spectacularly intimidating as ever. I love how when he’s talking with Krennic, he only has to take a step towards him to make the other man practically wet himself. Then at the end of the film he has a huge fan-pleasing moment where he tears into a group of Rebel soldiers, reminding us just how terrifyingly powerful he really is.
The other most notable thing about the film are the visuals, which benefit enormously from Gareth Edwards’ signature ‘ground level’ approach. He aims to make the audience feel like they are in the scene, on the beach under the lumbering tread of Imperial Walkers, or diving down through atmosphere with Rebel fighters. There are a ton of very creative, very striking visuals throughout the film, especially during the climactic battle, like a crashed X-wing skidding across the planet shield or the Death Star eclipsing the sun before blowing a hole in the planet (keeping with canon, the Death Star doesn’t completely obliterate any worlds, but its lowest setting is arguably more visually impressive in the way it makes the ground curve up like a cresting wave).
On that subject, the environments are more akin to classic Star Wars: there’s the Jedi sacred world of Jedha, with its crumbling red-stone statues and temples built right into the side of the mountains, a trading outpost built in between two asteroids, and the tropical island world of Skeriff where the final battle takes place. In between we return to Mustaphah and Yavin IV (the latter of which is meticulously recreated) and have a couple rather ho-hum planets to fill out the story.
Actually, there’s a lot of filling out going on, which brings us to the flaws of the film. First and foremost is that the plot, especially about the middle, drags. It seems as though they didn’t have enough story to get to the length they wanted, so they fill it in with some unnecessary stuff involving Forest Whittaker as a crazy ex-Rebel (his whole performance is strange and distracting to the point that I wish they’d left him out) and the aforementioned sub-plot about whether Cassian will assassinate Galen Erso.
The latter is a major problem. You see, it might have made sense when they didn’t know how far along the Death Star’s development is, but after it blasts a hole in a planet they know it’s already operational and that killing the lead engineer won’t make any difference. They had already suggested an alternative plan to capture Erso and have him testify before the senate. That is obviously their best bet at this point, so why does the one general continue to order Cassian to murder him? No reason except to gin up some extra drama when Jin finds out.
Speaking of which the two leads are…well, they’re not bad. Jin Erso is much more palatable than Rey (at least when she isn’t giving Katara-like inspirational speeches, then she gets kind of annoying, since she is not in a position to be any kind of moral authority). She’s competent, but not perfect, and she does have to work and suffer for her goal. Cassian is just kind of forgettable, as is the pilot guy. Basically, the team of heroes in this film is half fun and memorable, half dull and forgettable. And the latter includes the main characters.
Also, why does the Rebellion need Jin’s inspirational speeches? Haven’t they been fighting this war for about twenty years at this point? It’s not inconceivable, psychologically, but it is disappointing. The idea that the Rebellion we were cheering for only exists because this girl no one cares about stood up for the ideal they were fighting for is annoying and unnecessary. Why bother with the extraneous drama of whether they’ll give up or not anyway? Isn’t the ultra-dangerous assault interesting enough?
That said, I do like how the volunteers are all the ones who had to do dirty work for the Rebellion. The idea is that they’ve already compromised themselves so much that they can’t bear to have it be for nothing. On that subject, the moral ambiguity of the film (Cassian’s introductory scene has him killing an innocent ally to avoid detection) has received criticism for diverging so far from the pulpy tone of the other films. Personally, I’m willing to accept it, partly because this film is explicitly separating itself from the main series, and partly because there is a price for this. The characters don’t get to live happily ever after following all they’ve done. Their ‘reward’ is to sacrifice their lives in a good cause to ensure that other, more virtuous people, will be able to win the war. I actually really like this: the implication that the violent, brutal element in the Rebellion is sacrificing themselves to give a chance to the idealistic element embodied in the original characters. It reminds me of the line in Dean Koontz’s Odd Apocalypse, “A scourge must be scourged.” It’s some genuinely smart moral writing, though I could have done without the pointless complications.
Basically, the film could have stood to be a good half-hour shorter, and to have spent more time with the Dark Side characters, as they’re by far the most interesting. I would have liked to see more of Krennic and Tarkin’s backstabbing, more of Vader, and more of the Death Star’s construction. The Rebel characters aren’t bad (like the ones in Force Awakens), but they’re not very interesting for the most part.
Meanwhile, though I praised it before, some of the fan service is pretty clunky. Probably the worst is when those two guys from the Cantina – the “he doesn’t like you” guy and his friend – just show up on Jedha. This is stupid: for one thing, why are they here? For another, the city is blown up mere hours later while being under Imperial blockade, so how did they end up on Tatooine? Also, the bit does nothing; it could have been cut without changing anything.
Also, while I appreciate the film trying to connect itself to the original, having Leia’s ship depart from the battle was a step too far. It hurts the continuity with the original and creates questions relating to Leia and Vader’s actions in that film. An unfortunate lapse at the very end of the film.
Granted, Leia’s line about Rogue One having brought them hope is nice, but they didn’t need to set it up that way: they could have just shown the fleet broadcasting the plans and Leia’s ship receiving them. That would have fit perfectly without creating the problems of this ending. Such a simple solution, but they didn’t do it.
Another problem comes in the opening scene, where Erso sends his wife and daughter into hiding when the Empire shows up. Then his wife comes back and Krennic shoots her. This whole sequence is problematic: what kind of mother would abandon her daughter in that situation? Why does Krennic shoot her just after talking about using her as a hostage? Granted she had a gun on him, but he has several armored, highly trained guards who could easily have disarmed or wounded her. Again, it’s just to create a bit more unnecessary drama and it’s very clunkily done.
Fortunately, I’d say there’s more that does work than that doesn’t. The last forty minutes or so, which actually showcase the mission to get the plans, are pretty much fantastic, with a very well-realized back-and-forth as the heroes and villains alternately get the upper hand. The space battle is one of the best ones since Return of the Jedi, and the sight of the classic ships and tech (in a setting that makes sense) is very satisfying. The whole sequence is great, with very minor problems that don’t really affect the overall effect.
On that note, and again in contrast with The Force Awakens, Gareth Edwards knows how to create suspense. Compare the scene in Force Awakens when Rey is trying to break out of prison before Kylo gets back with the one where Jin is listening to her father’s message while the Death Star prepares to fire. In the former, we just have the whole scene of Rey escaping, then the scene of Kylo approaching and entering the cell. There wasn’t the slightest attempt to create suspense; it was as if the director just didn’t even think about it. In Rogue One, we get Erso’s vital and heartfelt speech intercut with almost silent scenes of the Death Star gunners powering up the cannon, then of the blast hitting the city. We know we’re on a time limit and something very important has to finish within a very strict time limit before something else kills them all, and we follow both events as they reach their climax.
I also appreciate that the film has the courage to follow things through to their logical conclusion. The characters succeed, but none of them escape. In the end, Jin and Cassian can only hold each other and watch the blast from the Death Star as it sweeps over them, taking comfort in the knowledge that they’ve given the galaxy hope. It’s a striking ending, and handled with taste and emotional resonance. I also like Jin’s defiant taunt to Krennic: “My father put a fuse in your machine, and I just told the whole galaxy how to light it.”
In the end, the film is nothing like the disaster that The Force Awakens was, but it is rough and very uneven. The parts that work really work and the parts that don’t really don’t. But the good will on the part of the filmmakers, especially Gareth Edwards, is palpable, which puts it in stark contrast with the previous film. It isn’t a great film; I probably would rank it below Revenge of the Sith just for the dullness of most of the characters, but it is a good film. And at this point in our journey through Star Wars, that counts for a lot.