There is a lot of Star Wars stuff in Rogue One but there is not a ton of Star Wars feeling. The ships, the costumes, the physical things, the things you can see, are all there, the movie is very clearly set in the Galaxy Far, Far Away, but the iconic music cues, the stark contrast between good and evil, the arch characters, and the innocence are largely absent. While the Lucasfilm logo is followed by the word’s “In a Galaxy Far, Far Away..”, that is not followed by the famed opening expository crawl; Director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are announcing that Rogue One is something different, something apart from the on going Star Wars saga. It is. It is also the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back.
Set during the run-up the early days of the Galactic Civil War, Rogue One covers the efforts of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as they race to uncover the secrets of The Galactic Empire’s soon-to-be-dreaded Death Star. Felicity Jones takes the lead as Jyn Orso, daughter of the The Death Star’s chief engineer (Mads Mikkelsen); separated from her parents at a young age, Jyn is a character in the Han Solo mold, choosing survival and self-interest over idealism. When she is rescued from Imperial custody by a small band of rebels led by Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, Jyn finds herself pressed into service, charged with acting as a diplomat to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) a partisan fighter deemed too extreme for the Rebellion. As Jyn, Cassian, and Cassian’s droid sidekick, K2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk and, perhaps, the funniest Star Wars character ever), set out to discover The Empire’s secrets, they are gradually joined by a ragtag band comprised of Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), blind, force-attuned warrior Chirro (Donnie Yen), and gruff badass Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen); the cast is terrific, each character a potential favorite. On the Imperial side of the equation are Ben Mendelsohn’s Director Krennic, a striver and political rival of Grand Moff Tarkin, who here is played by Guy Henry, digitally enhanced to resemble Peter Cushing, an effect that does not look weird so much as it points to how weird-looking Peter Cushing was. Mendelsohn, as per usual, is great, endowing his Imperial toadie with a loosy-goosy energy. As with The Force Awakens, the great new characters are the best part Rogue One.
Where Rogue One improves upon The Force Awakens is in how it’s director and writers do not feel overly beholden to Star Wars. Rogue One will never be considered to be of a piece with the other Star Wars prequels, it is a Star Wars prequel, meaning it cannot be fully appreciated if one has not seen Star Wars. No surprise there. What is surprising is deftness and lightness of touch that Edwards and the writers display in approaching references and touchstones from the original trilogy. They don’t entirely resist the temptation to wink at the audience, but when they do it is frequently thrilling and, a couple of times, pretty damn funny. Any Star Wars fan or, really, anyone with a familiarity with Star Wars knows, roughly, how Rogue One is going to end, but there are a lot of surprises to be had along the way.
What really makes Rogue One different from any Star Wars film before it is in its tone. The movie is often dark and pleasantly so, staying away from the moral extremes of episodes one through seven. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, but sometimes the actions of the good guys look pretty bad. This is not juvenile edginess, it’s a moral complexity that has never before been present in the world of Star Wars. The arch good-versus-evil conflict of the first film worked like gangbusters, but that kind of thing can only work for so long. Edwards has delivered what is surely the most sophisticated and adult Star Wars movie yet, not that kids aren’t going to love it.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy
Producer: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Cinematographer: Greig Fraser
Editor: John Gilroy, Colin Goudie, Jabez Olssen
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker