Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes us back to the era of the classic trilogy just days before Luke Skywalker destroys the first Death Star in A New Hope. As a long time fan of Star Wars who grew up with the original trilogy, this film felt not only like returning to the time of my childhood but returning to my old basement with my old toys as I acted out an untold story within the universe. But Luke, Han, and Leia weren’t in the lead for this journey. It felt closer to Dash Rendar being in the spotlight as for the first time ever, the story was led with protagonists who weren’t Jedi nor heroes. Instead, Rogue One takes us on an adventure with a set of characters who feel more like real people who are either doing what they can to survive during the galactic civil war or standing up for what they believe in no matter what the cost.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the film’s lack of an opening crawl and I do think it hurt the film. The cold open was jarring mainly because of the music but you are quickly drawn in by the amazing opening shot the shuttle approaching Lah’mu and the film literally hits the ground running as we cut to young Jyn Erso running home to her parents who are scrambling to pack now that they have been discovered in hiding by the Empire. While the opening scene is captivating with fantastic performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen, complemented by gorgeous cinematography, I do think it lacked in exposition. You get a sense Director Orson Krennic and Galen Erso had a history and Krennic’s motivations are clear as we are told exactly what his goal is and we are shown what lengths he willing to go to but I wanted to see more of just how desperate Krennic is to rise within the Empire. Granted it does come soon after in his first scene with Grand Moff Tarkin butI didn’t feel hooked into Krennic’s character. Fortunately, I read Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel which gave me all the backstory I needed to for the opening scene to still have the biggest impact it could have so my experience wasn’t hindered but had I not read the book I would have been craving more from the characters.
After a title card I didn’t love, the film begins to jump around giving us some great introductions and some not so great introductions. Cassian Andor’s introduction works. It’s a great scene that gives us a sense of the gray area this film is going to operate in. As soon as Cassian killed his informant I knew he was going to be my favorite rebel ever. But unfortunately, Bodhi Rook’s introduction is completely botched. After we jump to Jedha to see a frantic Bodhi being delivered to Saw Gerrera’s group, we jump away back to Jyn in less than a minute. We learn what we need to know about Bodhi but the scene doesn’t work because it’s all the exposition we get from Bodhi in the entire film. This scene sort of highlights the film’s major problem which is too much telling and not enough showing. Seeing Bodhi defect from the Empire would have been a much more compelling introduction that would have hooked me into his character. Unfortunately, the way it was done I didn’t care about his character like I wanted to. Once we jump back to Jyn we see her in an Imperial Labor Camp on Wobani. Well, sort of. It’s more like seeing someone from within a car and being told we’re inside an Imperial Labor Camp. The scene itself is a missed opportunity to flesh out how oppressive the Empire is within the galaxy but I think the film makes up for it later on Jedha.
Once Jyn is rescued from Wobani and we jump to Yavin 4 things start to pick up. The recreation of the Massassi base is impeccable. As an audience, Jyn’s briefing serves as a briefing to us as well. There’s still a bit too much telling rather than showing but the performances from all of the actors is incredible. Personally, I would be down for a General Draven spin-off as I found his character extremely interesting. This movie did a great job at fleshing out the Rebellion and making us want to see even more of the Rebellion. I also think Genevieve O’Reilly’s performance as Mon Mothma rivals Caroline Blakiston’s performance in Return of the Jedi.
When Jyn and Cassian arrive on Jedha the film starts to get really good. I started to geek out when Jyn and Cassian looked up to Jedha City with the Star Destroyer hanging over as I realized this film felt exactly like how I would have expected an expanded universe movie would have. That’s when it began to hit me just how incredibly this film was expanding the universe and simultaneously tying into what we have all known and loved for years.
Once in Jedha City we start to get some pretty incredible easter eggs. Obviously seeing Dr. Evazan and Ponde Baba was fantastic but as we are introduced to Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, two guardians of the Whills (which is a deep cut itself), we hear Chirrut say “May the force of others be with you”, the original mantra written for the Jedi from the early drafts of Star Wars which was then titled “The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills”. While it was essentially fan service, Rogue One shows just how effective fan service can be when it is done well. Never in a million years would I have expected the Journal of the Whills to be referenced in a Star Wars film and it was incredibly gratifying. While I appreciated it incredibly, I did begin to worry if the film was alienating general audiences who weren’t clued into things on the level of a long-time Star Wars fan. But fortunately, I was proven wrong. The second time I went to see the film I took my sister along with me. My sister had never been a Star Wars fan growing up. I always tried to get her into it but I think the lack of female heroines in the main Saga left her without an entry point or a way to relate. But that all changed with Rogue One. Not only did she enjoy the film, she emerged with a newfound interest in the Skywalker saga.
Cassian’s plan to make contact with an associate of Saw Gerrera’s and use Jyn’s past with Saw as a way in to see Saw is derailed as Cassian and Jyn find themselves in the middle of an attack on the Empire by Saw’s extremists. It’s an incredible and exciting action sequence that delivers something I have wanted to see in the Star Wars universe for a long time which is some serious melee combat. First we get Jyn kicked some stormtrooper ass and then Chirrut comes in to deliver some incredible martial arts. While we know Chirrut isn’t a Jedi, I do believe he is a force sensitive as it seems clear that the force is moving through him, using him as an instrument to inevitably make sure the Death Star plans find their way to Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Unfortunately, the film hits a bump in the road once we get to Saw’s hideout. Something is just off about Forest Whitaker’s performance. But Rogue One quickly recovers with one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the film that serves as a bit of retcon to the Skywalker saga when Jyn watches the hologram message from her father telling her he has purposefully built the flaw in the Death Star that will lead to its destruction. Felicity Jones has described Jyn like a bit of a caged animal. Jyn has built this wall around her to protect herself and as she collapses we see that wall crumble and become vulnerable for the first time. It is hands down Jones’ best acting in the film and one of my favorites moments as well. It’s all happening as Krennic has begun the first test of the Death Star, using it to destroy Jedha City and wipe out Saw Gerrera and his extremists. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking where horror is juxtaposed with a beautiful sadness. The focus being on the sadness of a young woman who misses her father desperately more than anything. The daring escape made by the team that follows is complemented by some incredible cinematography as K-2SO rescues the heroes with the U-Wing from Saw’s hideout.
Once the Death Star’s superlaser has proven it’s value, Grand Moff Tarkin takes command from Krennic and we finally get to see Krennic unhinged, revealing his desperate desire to rise within the ranks of the Empire. I’ll take this moment to address what I thought of the CGI used to resurrect Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Tarkin’s inclusion in the film presented a major risk for Lucasfilm. Not only would the Grand Moff appear, he was featured as a key character in Rogue One and the risk has paid off in some major ways. Not only is it a groundbreaking accomplishment in computer graphics animation but it also serves to inform his character in the original Star Wars in some quite remarkable ways. John Knoll and the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic didn’t just recreate the likeness of Peter Cushing, they truly brought him back to life in the film so well that he was actually able to give a performance. While I could still tell he was CGI because my brain was telling me so, I was in shock because I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to believe he was real because he looked it. Some of the people I saw the film with who weren’t Star Wars fans wouldn’t even have known he was CGI had I not told them.
But the risk didn’t just pay off in the form of a technical accomplishment, it also provided new context to a film Star Wars fans have known and loved for years. I would strongly recommend watching Rogue One and A New Hope as a double feature. The direct prequel serves to inform the classic Star Wars on so many levels from raising the stakes even higher in the opening scene to plot holes to smaller moments like when the high-level Imperial officers are sassing back at Grand Moff Tarkin after he informed them the Imperial Senate had been dissolved. Originally it had been a bit odd that the Imperial officers were being rather insubordinate to Tarkin but now it makes a lot more sense. Considering Tarkin had taken Krennic’s command away from him, those officers had to have been harboring some serious resentment over a position they most certainly had ambitions of attaining themselves.
The middle of Rogue One takes us to the rain-stricken planet of Eadu where the Empire has set up a refinery for Kyber Crystals. Cassian is compelled to carry out his orders to murder Galen Erso upon sight but his conscious begins to get to him and he surprises himself when he realizes how much he cares about Jyn when her life is in danger as the rebel squadron approaches to bomb the refinery. Felicity Jones continues to deliver a top notch performance as she is reunited with her father in the moments of his death. Unfortunately, the dialog for Galen leaves much to be desired and his death falls a bit flat. That’s sort of the biggest problem for the second half of act two. Lots of moments fall flat. After an exciting action sequence on Eadu, the team escapes and jumps into hyperspace to head back to Yavin 4. Jyn and Chirrut share a special moment as they have this unspoken bond between each other through their belief in the force. Jyn and Cassian come into conflict because Chirrut has helped her realize Cassian was going to kill her father but the beats fall flat and the film hits a lull.
Krennic heads to Mustafar and we get to see Darth Vader’s castle straight out of the concept art from Ralph McQuarrie. It’s totally mindblowing and adds a new layer of interest and complexity to Vader as it seems either he himself or Palpatine is keeping him on Mustafar to harness the anger and pain from the memories he has on the lava planet, strengthening his power of the dark side. When the doors open and Vader’s shadow rises on the wall before he enters the chamber feels like a moment directed by Dave Filoni of The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, the true heir to George Lucas.
We cut back to Yavin where the politicians of the Star Wars universe are doing what they do best which is resorting to inaction. Rather than taking the chance to use the intel provided by Galen Erso to steal the plans for the Death Star, the politicians cower in fear. It fosters what should have been a great scene where Cassian and a battalion decide to rebel against the rebellion. They see the opportunity to make up for all the morally questionable actions they have taken in the name of the rebellion to do something truly heroic and prevent the Empire from cementing their grip on the galaxy. The scene itself feels flat and much less exciting than it should taking us into the third act but it does give us a heartfelt moment between Jyn and Cassian as for the first time they see that through their actions together they can find pride within themselves.
Finally, things kick into high gear. Up until this point in the film, I didn’t think the score composed by Michael Giacchino anything remarkable. It wasn’t bad by any means, it just wasn’t as inspiring as I hoped it would be. That changes in the third act, much like the rest of the film’s problems. Suddenly everything begins to work and the film becomes so good it makes the first and second act work as well.
The third act is a borderline masterpiece which delivers some of the most iconic moments in Star Wars history. It feels almost Saving Private Ryan meets Mission: Impossible as the rebels launch an attack and infiltrate the base on Scarif. It’s incredibly exciting but once the Rebel fleet shows up to help out what is now the original Rogue Squadron it becomes an absolutely exhilarating experience. The space battle itself is hands down the best space battle since Return of the Jedi. I need to watch it about a hundred more times before I can say the Battle of Scarif is as good as the Battle of Endor but it’s pretty close.
One of the standout moments from Rogue One that had long-time fans of Star Wars jumping in their seats and cheering was when Red Leader Garven Dreis (Drewe Henley) and Gold Leader Jon Vander (Angus MacInnes) showed up during the climactic space battle over. The footage used was from the original Star Wars and it was seamlessly integrated into the new picture. I basically jumped back in my seat and yelped. I had bought a Rogue One t-shirt at the concession stand before going into the auditorium and almost began spinning it around my head like a helicopter. Seeing Red and Gold leader again was something I could never have imagined and is the easter egg I appreciate the most in the film as it completely took me back to being a 7-year old again. Again, easter eggs used in this kind of way shows how effective fan service can be when it is done well and Rogue One did it perfectly.
The film closes beautifully and heartbreakingly before it transitions into absolute terror that now raises the stakes even higher at the beginning of A New Hope. I teared up when Admrial Raddus said “Rogue One, may the force be with you”, but I was happy that Jyn and Cassian found pride within each other before they died together. There was obviously a budding romance through that pride but I was glad they didn’t kiss. It felt more powerful that way. It was a beautiful moment for Jyn and Cassian just as the Death Star rises over Scarif before Tarkin orders a test fire to destroy the base on Scarif, killing Krennic along with it in poetic fashion.
It’s evident from the images released and footage seen in the trailers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story that the film originally had a different ending which featured the heroes of the filmmaking a daring escape from Scarif as they charged towards AT-ACT’s on the beach and arrived safely back in the Imperial Cargo shuttle (you can tell from Cassian’s costume change). But the choice to kill the characters as we can now call the original members of Rogue Squadron was absolutely the right choice. Not only does the squad get to die as heroes in an act of self-sacrifice for the Rebellion, their sacrifice lends deeper meaning to the destruction of the Death Star in the original Star Wars. I’ve heard some people say they didn’t feel the characters were very memorable in Rogue One to which I completely disagree. They may not be as iconic as Luke, Han, and Leia or Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8 but you’ll never be able to watch A New Hope ever again without having the heroes of Rogue One and the Battle of Scarif running through your mind the entire time. It’s an even bigger sigh of relief when Luke blows up the Death Star knowing their sacrifice, as well as Galen’s, was worth it.
We cut to an incredible shot from space looking down at the explosion as Darth Vader flys by in his Tyderium shuttle with a tie fighter escort to board Admiral Raddus’ Mon Calamari. The Rebels on board attempt to escape the with the plans but it’s too late. From the darkness, Darth Vader ignites his lightsaber and emerges. This, more than any other moment, completely transported me back to my childhood as my friends and I would hide in the dark in my basement before igniting our lightsabers and dueling against each other. The scene itself informs not just the beginning of A New Hope but also The Empire Strikes Back as we now have a frame of reference for the absolute fear felt by the Rebels as Vader invaded both the Tantive IV and Echo Base. Luckily a brave rebel hands off the plans to another allowing them to escape on the Tantive IV. Chills ran through my body as the cockpit door opened revealing Princess Leia. Her face wasn’t done as well as Tarkin’s but we absolutely needed to see her. The final moment of the film would not have been as effective otherwise.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn’t perfect. It suffers from a lack of characterization and some pacing issues but it still manages to come together in the end and serve as an incredible lead into A New Hope. Never again will we look at the original Star Wars nor the Rebellion in the same way. The film itself opens the door to the limitless potential Lucasfilm has with standalone Star Wars features separate from the Skywalker saga and has me incredibly excited for the young Han Solo film and whatever else comes next. Star Wars has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and now is better more so than ever to be a Star Wars fan. Thank you to the cast, the hard working crew, Gareth Edwards, Kathleen Kennedy, and the entire Lucasfilm story group for your efforts. You’ve given us something truly special with Rogue One.
8.4 – GREAT