Although all of the Star Wars films are about, well, war, Gareth Edwards’ installment into the franchise structurally lays itself out as such. While the other films are science-fiction, fantasy, action, adventure, and western films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a flat out war movie and it wants you to know that.
The premise of the film is simple: the Death Star has been created, but there’s a flaw in the system forged by Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a rebel taken hostage by the Empire. Our main characters must then fight their way into Imperial territory and retrieve the plans before all hope is lost.
If you have seen the other Star Wars films, most notably the original 1977 A New Hope, you know that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) had the plans to destroy the Death Star in her possession. This movie answers the question, “how did that come to be?”
In effect, that makes this film perhaps somewhat confusing to the casual viewer. There are many people who have mistakenly thought that Rogue One is actually Episode VIII, which we will be getting next year.
No, this is a stand-alone spin-off film that simply ties into the original blockbuster.
This setup, then, gives Edwards the perfect chance to make his movie as gritty and dark as he likes. Can you really expect all of the characters to survive, knowing that this is a war film and that at this point in the galaxy’s history, the Empire is at full power? It would be foolish to think this film would carry a tone similar to, say, The Force Awakens.
This is a movie about hope in the face of overwhelming odds.
Rogue One is shot beautifully, with lots of great sweeping shots of planets and space. The effects—save for one in particular—are magnificent. It really looks like the ships are soaring through space and landing on runways. There is also a great mixture of CGI and practical effects, enough to give you a taste of what made the original film campy yet believable.
There is never a shift in tone throughout, and the film does a good job maintaining consistency in almost all respects. This movie is dark and, again, it really wants you to know that. There is certainly no glorification of war here.
In more than one way, Rogue One makes callbacks to Japanese cinema. This isn’t surprising, since the other movies do this as well—the cantina scene in Star Wars is taken directly from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, for instance—and this one specifically became reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. But instead of a bunch of warriors defending a village from evildoers, it’s a bunch of warriors attacking a planet full of evildoers. And much like in Seven Samurai, war is shown to be grotesque, and characters are killed not dramatically, but swiftly and flippantly.
However, this movie is not on the level of Seven Samurai. Not even close.
The most significant problem of Rogue One unfortunately becomes evident almost right away, and it is one of the biggest strengths of Seven Samurai: the characters. There is almost zero depth to any of these characters, and so when we are supposed to feel, we don’t.
In a movie that is heavy on death and destruction, and which focuses on the glorious act of fighting for hope, there needs to be emotional payoff. Without it, the film just can’t quite get to where it wants to go. This flick should send you on an emotional rollercoaster throughout, but it doesn’t.
The side characters can be forgiven. In film, you only have so much time to flesh out characters, and so when you’re given a story that features a team of them, some must pay the price. And yet, surprisingly, the side characters, while well-worn archetypes, are well done.
The blind epic warrior, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen)—who again recalls Japanese cinema by appearing to be a not-so-subtle reference to the famous Zatoichi character—and the never-miss gunner Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) in particular are both fun for what they are. They have some cheeky lines, and they’re given some great action sequences.
Even the new droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is enjoyable. He is the comic relief character, but his lines aren’t grating. He actually manages to draw some chuckles, and he isn’t overused.
But while that works for those characters, doing the same with the main characters causes the film to suffer. Our heroine, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is given a quick backstory, and her goal is clear throughout the movie, but we learn almost nothing about her—so she’s boring.
The same goes for the co-main character of Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). We understand what he is fighting for, but we are told virtually nothing about him as a person. So he becomes, like Jyn, a piece on a chessboard.
This isn’t the actors’ fault, however. The acting itself is done quite well, and there aren’t any specific performances that stand out as being cringe-worthy or even bothersome. It is an issue of the script and, ultimately, of authorial dictatorship.
This isn’t the first time this issue has arisen in Edwards’ films.
Take the 2014 Godzilla, for example. The film itself is solid, and the monsters, effects, and cinematography are all good-to-great. But the human characters are impressively unspectacular. Every time Aaron Taylor-Johnson is on screen, the movie lags. And that’s not because Taylor-Johnson can’t act, but because he was given very little to do.
The same can be said for Rogue One.
The movie is also littered with references and cameos connecting it to the other Star Wars films. In some cases, they’re nice little moments that serve the story. But quite often they are fan service, and will momentarily take the viewer out of the film just so that they can chuckle and say, “Hey! I remember that!” These moments were to be expected, but that doesn’t make them any less unnecessary.
Now let us end on a pleasant note and talk about one of the best aspects of the film that feeds into another one of the best aspects of the film: the action.
All of the action scenes are done extremely well. The choreography is great—Chirrut Îmwe’s initial fight is high-level fun—and leaves you with a smile on your face. There is a space battle that feels incredibly real, and is absolutely the best we have ever seen in a Star Wars film.
So that’s the first aspect. The second? Darth Vader (James Earl Jones).
If you are still upset about how things ended for Vader at the conclusion of Revenge of the Sith, this film will make you forget all about that. While he’s used sparingly—which should be applauded, for Vader is not a central figure to this storyline—when he is on screen he steals the show. James Earl Jones returning to his iconic role induces goosebumps, and with his voice alone he still manages to become one of the most powerful and terrifying presences in film.
I will say no more than Vader does get his own action scene, and it is hands down the best scene in the movie. It is brilliantly shot, and should leave every true fan satisfied.
When it comes down to it, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a great film that neutered itself into a very good film. There is still a lot to love about this movie, and it is certainly better than any of the prequels. An enjoyable watch for any fan of the franchise or genre, this is a flick that does deserve your attention.
May the force be with you.
(Photo from Star Wars Official Website)