ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) review
written by: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (screenplay) & John Knoll and Gary Whitta (screenplay)
produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur and Simon Emanuel
directed by: Gareth Edwards
rated: PG-13 (for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action)
runtime: 133 min.
U.S. release date: December 16, 2016
Before there was “A New Hope”, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….there had to be hope. It started out small and outnumbered, pulled together from unlikely places and bringing together a certain diverse band of misfits with varied backgrounds, abilities and experiences. That Rebel Alliance opposed a Galactic Empire that ruled across star systems and it needed assistance from the unlikeliest of beings. To be specific, information needed to be obtained that could jeopardize, potentially weaken, the mighty Empire. That’s the tale told in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”, a movie that is the first of its kind, a supposed one-off chapter from a continuing saga most are familiar with, one which itself has undeniably become an all-encompassing product – an Empire, if you will – since that first independent feature back in 1977. Director Gareth Edwards helms a story that was briefly mentioned in the opening yellow scrawl from that unexpected blockbuster hit that changed the lives of many moviegoers (myself included), presenting a chance to bring new life to what is known.
What is offered in “Rogue One” is an enthralling and entertaining yarn, albeit one that is tainted by the temptation to deliberately tie it to the familiar, something that was well-intentioned and understandable to an extent, but eventually becomes distractedly jarring.
I can’t get into all those details, however, since the studio has requested that press “refrain from revealing spoilers and detailed story points”, so that audiences will be given “the opportunity to enjoy “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” to its fullest and allow them to discover its surprises and plot twists in the cinema”, which is understandable, yet challenging. I rarely reveal plot details in reviews that would spoil one’s viewing experience and now this ‘good faith’ embargo finds me unable to share what spoiled my own viewing experience. Ironic that such a request makes me want to rebel.
Let’s get back to hope though. After all, it was hope that found me optimistic in my approach to the first standalone story in the Star Wars universe – well, theatrical standalone story, less we forget the two Ewok movies that made it to the small screen back in the 80s, (some may like to). “Rogue One” is given the daunting task of kicking off this standalone approach for Lucasfilm/Disney and they’re banking on it being a success. Financially, it will be, of course. But as a standalone story, it never quite stands on its own, when I really hoped it would have.
The screenplay comes from Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series), from a story by Gary Whitta (“The Book of Eli”) and John Knoll (returning as visual effects supervisor as well as executive producer), inspired by the world that George Lucas created. Like “The Force Awakens”, Lucas had no involvement in writing or producing this “Star Wars” story, which is still odd to type or say out loud. These four writers – a quantity that usually does not bode well – were provided with the opportunity to stop anywhere along the Star Wars timeline and have chosen to go back thirty-four galactic years to tell the tale of those rebel spies who “managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet”. It’s a good choice, one that sheds light on a daunting war-mission, while providing new planets and environments for audiences to visit, as well as new characters, while including some familiar faces, yet some that are all too familiar.
The main protagonist of “Rogue One” is the defiant and independent Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young woman with no political affiliations who eventually takes it upon herself to embark on the harrowing task of retrieving those plans, initially unbeknownst to the Rebel Alliance. She is joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) a somewhat shady Alliance Intelligence officer and his cohort, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a memory-wiped former Imperial enforcer droid. They are haphazardly joined by a blind monk warrior, Chirrup Îmwe (Donnie Yen) who fancies The Force and his friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) a heavy-artillery assassin, along with former Imperial cargo pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a trio found on the Force-sacred planet, Jedha. It’s a rag-tag group of misfits, who are eventually backed by soldiers and mercenaries of the Alliance that believe the time is right to take a fight to the Empire, despite the indecision of Mon Monthma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and the rest of the Rebel Council.
Jyn’s involvement is personal, since her scientist father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is the one who designed the properties that would weaponize the Death Star, and her hope (there’s that word again) is to reunite with him, after being separated for years and looked after by the outlaw rebel, Saw Gererra (Forest Whitaker), a lone figure who’s launched his own campaign against the Empire. To fulfill their mission, Jyn and her team, spontaneously dubbed Rogue One, must get past assorted stormtroopers led by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s tasked with overseeing the creation and weaponization of the Death Star. Using Galen’s expertise, Krennic seeks to make a name for himself in the Empire, all while a certain Sith Lord breathes heavily down his neck.
Much of “Rogue One” relies on viewers having knowledge of the events that occurred in “Episode IV: A New Hope”, specifically the fact that the rebels, particularly Princess Leia, had acquired the Death Star plans and were in hot pursuit by Darth Vader and his Imperial forces. That’s understandable considering the premise, but I found myself less concerned with how this movie inevitably leads into “A New Hope” – in fact, it didn’t even cross my mind since its supposed to be a standalone story, but it literally ends minutes before the iconic opening of “A New Hope” – and more focused on who these new characters are and immersing myself in their environments. Offering this opportunity to viewers, is something that Edwards and company do quite well, for the most part.
Production designers, Doug Chiang (who worked on Episodes I and II) and Neil Lamont (a supervising art director on “The Force Awakens”), along with cinematographer Gary Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty”), establish a mise-en-scène that feels like a very much within the realm of the Star Wars universe we know, yet taking us to places we’ve never visited before. Through camerawork that is either sweeping or handheld (but not too up-close), we visit a mountainside moisture farm surrounded by lush greenery, an Imperial outpost hidden between towering rock formations and a wondrous beach landscape where a D-day type battle occurs, all of which were fascinating to visit and in essence expanding on the familiar, instead of relying on the familiar.
There are slight alterations to costumes and vehicles and different creatures introduced, elements that are expected in every Star Wars movie. There are iterations of the X and Y-wing fighters of the Rebellion and the Imperial TIE fighters, that resemble what wind up seeing in the original trilogy. The clothes, gear and armor characters wear fit nicely somewhere between what we’d imagine seeing between Episodes III and IV. All of this is cool to see again, it’s what we’d expect without necessarily being recycled. So, while it’s all familiar, it’s not the particular familiar that I have issues with. It’s the specific inclusion of certain familiar characters from the saga that I had some issues with. Of course, I can’t get into it all, but you’ll know when you see it. Does it make me not want to see it again? No, but I’ll just be prepared for certain aspects of the movie I’m on the fence with.
These new characters though and the actors who play them are a blast to get to know (granted, some actors will be recognizable, it’s still exciting to see what they’ll do with what they’re given), removed from any one archetype and in turn provided with more complex and mysterious roles than what we may be used to. Jyn may seem like yet another strong-willed female character, so soon after meeting Rey last year in “The Force Awakens”, but her gender has no impact on her personality and capabilities. She is who she is due to her circumstances and how the Empire has effected her life since childhood. Although she may consider herself sort of jaded, there is a purity and curiosity about her that people are drawn to and once the stakes are clear, a determination to do the seemingly impossible. She doesn’t wind up leading Rogue One because she has this great experience as a leader, but because she stands up and sees the need to get do something. Luna’s Cassian Andor is hard to figure out at first. There’s a temptation to call him the Han Solo-type, but that’s a fleeting assessment once we see how the actor convincingly conveys an internal struggle with his duties as an officer and his moral conscience, the latter of which is something he’s not used to exercising until he meets Jyn.
As the voice of K2, Tudyk delivers great comedy, providing hilarious wit and impeccable timing. When you realize it’s Tudyk (if you didn’t already going in), you’ll agree. I kind of knew I’d like him, but was surprised how useful his character is and impressed with how seamlessly he interacts with others, not sticking out or becoming overbearing. My favorite new characters though are the two friends played by Chinese actors, Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. Without any exposition, you can tell these two have been friends for a long while, there is a noticeable and noble bond that the actors maintain throughout the movie, imbuing their characters with courage and grace, minus any unnecessary dialogue.
And then there’s Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones), one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history – that is, until we learned he was actually a petulant brat in the prequels – and while many were geeked when he showed up in “Rogue One” trailers, I was apprehensive. To me, including him here is the equivalent of needing to include Wolverine in every X-Men movie. He basically has two sequences in the movie, one is an interaction with Krennic that starts off very interesting, but ends with a snarky quip from Vader. The next time Vader shows up is all action and while that’s cool, it’s also another element that keeps this story from being a standlone story from the saga, which is something Lucasfilm/Disney and producer Kathleen Kennedy had been touting for years. Many will think that action sequence is cool and I guess it is, but it also teeters on character overuse and shows the writers lack of confidence in this movie truly standing apart from what we’re familiar with. I would’ve really been fine with seeing Mendelsohn’s antagonist struggle to rise to a prominent position in the Empire under the shadow of Vader and Palpatine, without seeing either of those recognizable characters.
That it didn’t deliver on the promise of a standalone story is the biggest problem I have with “Rogue One” and how it went about not coming through on that promise is unfortunate. It’s reliance on including characters we already know is disappointing and, at times, feels like product placement. There’s still much to like here and it’s quite an exciting, at times emotional, movie, but Kennedy and her clan should redefine what ‘standalone’ is and move forward accordingly.