DIRECTOR: Gareth Edwards STARRING: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Stephen Stanton, Ian McElhinney, Fares Fares, Jonathan Aris, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, James Earl Jones USA 2016
Before we begin, we must take a moment to clarify that we’re not reviewing the first, but indeed the third spin-off of Star Wars, entitled Rogue One – A Star Wars Story. This was not the first attempt at trying to further expand the Star Wars universe and most of you reading this by now must have a fleeting remembrance of those ‘80s TV movies in which George Lucas had the bright idea of reusing some of the most silly characters in the entire saga. No, not Jar Jar Binks, it was way way before that. Yes folks, the Ewoks! In all fairness ’84’s Caravan of Courage and ’86’s Battle for Endor, were indeed the first Star Wars spin-offs ever to be made, but those ended up being separate stories from the events of all the main Star Wars films and were, unfortunately, relegated to oblivion. But wait…before any you might start to think about a certain “Christmas Special”, it’s really for the best to move on with this review…
So…Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, the third spin-off, and officially the first one made by Disney, in case you’re living under a rock and didn’t know this by now, is set between Episodes 3 and 4 of the main Star Wars saga. The opening crawl for Episode 4 – A New Hope already shamelessly spoiled what this movie would be back in 1977, when those words magically appeared on screen for the first time: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR.” Essentially Rogue One is a movie entirely based on this sentence and focuses on the story of that particular group of rebel spies led by Jyn Erso (daughter of Galen Erso, the creator of the Death Star) and Alliance captain Cassian Andor.
Right away there’s something that clearly sets this movie apart from the rest of the other episodical entries in the saga. The overall tone of Rogue One is much darker from the get go, reminding us of the atmosphere of Episode 5 – The Empire Strikes Back or even the darkest moments of Episode 3 – Revenge of The Sith, but portrayed with much more intensity and grittiness. Director Gareth Edwards also made some subtle stylistic changes to further set this movie apart as a standalone by removing the traditional opening crawl, discarding transition swipes between scenes and also providing some actual information about the numerous new worlds the audience will be travelling to during the course of the action.
The new characters that form the never before seen group of rebel spies are displayed as combatants who really have to suffer and fight tooth and nail to overcome each set of hurdles thrown in their way by a ruthless Empire. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, besides being leaders of the pack, are the main embodiment of a tormented struggle, often filled with self doubt, that the Rebels had to go through to retrieve the dreaded space station plans. You really do get the impression that this was a monumental task, and through their interactions, Edwards managed to convey an emotional turmoil that audiences can relate to, something that Lucas didn’t quite achieve in some of the most recent entries on the main episodic saga. On the other hand, Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe and Alan Tudyk as the reprogrammed imperial droid K2SO, totally steal the show with incredible displays of martial arts (without any lightsabers nearby) and some moments of humor that manage to occasionally light up the mood.
Ben Mendelsohn plays the sadistic and power lustful Director Krennic, the main responsible for the development of the Death Star, in a register that might remind some of Christoph Waltz’ Hans Lauda from Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, while the combined star power of Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso and Forest Whitaker as the extremist rebel Saw Guerrera (an unprecedented presence and the first in the Star Wars universe to make the transition from cartoon to real life character) brings not only some prestige to a mostly unknown cast but also manages to have the most substantial impact in the development of the movie’s events even with some of the shortest screen time. However, for connoiseurs of the classic trilogy, the CGI reconstitution of some of its characters is one of the most striking points of all the movie. Though it’s understandable that CGI technology can only go so far and might have the effect of throwing some viewers temporarily out of scene, fans will still rejoice to see some of the old characters being brought to life to gain some new perspective on the events of Episode 4. And of course, speaking of Episode 4, it’s greatest villain (as announced in the trailers) Darth Vader is also back, with James Earl Jones providing again the Dark Lord of the Sith’s subtle vocal nuances of terrifying wittiness we haven’t heard since the original trilogy (That “No” thing in Episode 3 doesn’t count!). Also, you’ll be seeing him reaching heights of sadistic terror as never seen before, in what makes up for one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.
The change to a overall darker tone in the movie’s story can also be attributed not only to the previously mentioned struggles of each character but also to Edwards’ portrayal of the Galactic Empire which appears in a larger and much more menacing scale as we’ve never seen before in Star Wars movies, being a mighty fearful force and not just simply target practice for Ewoks. You actually believe now that these guys ran the galaxy under a tight fist. The Empire is shown with a new assortment of vehicles, Deathtroopers, Sandtroopers and even the traditional Stormtroopers from the classic trilogy actually hit on things this time, besides being dead set on shooting to kill in most of the guerrilla styled warfare scenes in Rogue One.
You’ll be seeing a lot of fan service in visits to older well known planets, the near perfect reconstitution of the original rebel alliance bases, the incorporation of little easter eggs from the animated Star Wars Rebels series, the inclusion of certain buildings in “volcanic surroundings” that appeared first in the comics, the casting of Jimmy Smits and Genevieve O’Reilly reprising their roles as Bail Organa and Mon Mothma from the prequels and even in the re-using of some unused footage of the original trilogy. However, by seamlessly blending of all of these elements, Edwards not only cleverly created a web of connections between past and future that will further allow the universe to expand in diverse ways, but also did a brilliant service in telling a detailed story of what will set Episode 4’s events in motion, which in turn will make you watch that movie from a totally renewed and different perspective.
All of this isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have its problems. The reusing of some of the ideas for scenes already seen on movies like Return of the Jedi, besides the already mentioned possibility for the CGI to make the viewer overanalyze everything he’s watching as those scenes kick-in, can cause some unsatisfaction and a feeling of unwanted deja-vu at certain points, but at least these situations are scarce and few throughout an original movie that mainly followed it’s own creative path and took risks instead of overly emulating some the saga’s former movies almost step by step, as was the case with the very good, but flawed The Force Awakens.
All in all, in the end, Rogue One is a marvelous achievement, and proof that in the right hands, the Star Wars brand can continue beyond the restrictions of the Skywalker family saga and well into new territories with new stories, always keeping a certain sense of connection and familiarity to a universe we all came to love. This is not a regular Star Wars movie, packed with the same balanced dose of adventure, mysticism, morality cues and humor we’re used to, and though it totally feels totally like a Star Wars movie, it would be the equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in this universe, putting the “Wars” firmly in Star Wars. The space and ground battle scenes in this movie are just simply some of the best so far in the whole saga, with the final space battle only being beaten by the (still) monstrous beginning of Revenge of the Sith. Now, do yourself a favor: Instead of watching that horrid “Christmas Special”, go and see Rogue One again and immediately follow it with Episode 4 right next. You’ll never see the original ’77 movie the same way again, and that change of perspective was, by all accounts Gareth Edwards’ greatest achievement with Rogue One. Let’s hope that the next spin-off about a certain “stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerfherder” just goes down as well as this!