Star Wars: Rogue One (2016): Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, directed by Gareth Edwards. Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker. Running Time: 133 minutes.
The death of my beloved EU aside, so far I must admit that I am quite enjoying the cinematic return to the Star Wars universe we are now in the midst of. The Force Awakens was a great dive back into the broad space opera of the original films, and this year’s smaller Rogue One will hopefully be the first icebreaker that allows subsets of the main trilogies to further push the bounds of what types of stories and characters can be pulled from the universe’s boundless potential. Like The Force Awakens, it stumbles a bit in its eagerness to stoke our collective sense of nostalgia, and plot issues abound, but when the movie is on, it’s on, and features a few scenes that deserve to rank among the best of the current Star Wars film canon.
Pretty much everyone seeing this will know this is an immediate prequel to A New Hope- the first Star Wars thing the world ever saw was Leia fleeing Darth Vader with the plans to the Death Star, and this is the tale of how, exactly, the rebels managed to acquire said plans. The main vehicle for this tale is a young, hard-bitten criminal named Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose father happens to be one of the original engineers crucial to the development of the Death Star. She’s been roaming the galaxy on her own until the day when she is “recruited” by the Rebel Alliance right at the same time an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) appears, claiming to have been sent by her father with instructions on how to find plans for the superweapon that hold the key to its destruction.
There is a little bit of winding around the galaxy throughout the first two acts to get to it, but eventually Jyn, the defector, Rebel captain/assassin Cassian (Diego Luna), and his accompanying battle droid K-2 (a hilarious and brilliant Alan Tudyk) team up with a pair of former guards of an old Jedi Temple, Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior-priest, and Baze (Jiang Wen), a gruffy shoot-em-up type, to hatch a madcap scheme to break into a major Imperial facility holding the plans.
The biggest problems with the film come in the windy parts in the first two acts- while the mixed batch in our rogue’s gallery of heroes are all well-acted and a lot of fun to watch (and it’s great to see such an ethnically mixed cast too), there just isn’t much in the stories given to Jyn and Cassian to work with. As such, the story backgrounds built up in a lot of the world-hopping we have to sit through (which a lot of viewers may find boring) aren’t really fully justified, and a tighter narrative with a greater focus on the action and intrigue in the third act would likely have made for a more powerful movie.
None of it is bad, to be clear, just largely unexceptional. Where the film DOES shine is in the craft of its filmmaking- this is a gorgeously-shot work, with some of the smoothest and most enjoyable action sequences we’ve yet gotten in any of these films, original, prequel, or otherwise. The entire third act is damn near flawless, evenly balancing out a wide range of action from space battles to pitched firefights to sneaky electrical sabotage, and all of the pleasantly colorful cast members get their moment to shine. It reminded me that we’ve never really had this sort of ensemble piece in a Star Wars film before, and given the huge numbers of characters that could be put together for this sort of story, I hope this is a harbinger of things to come.
Like with The Force Awakens, shouts-outs and in-jokes referring to the other films abound, and like with last year’s entry, they’re very much a mixed bag. Some are really clever, and the way they utilize Darth Vader (oh how we’ve all missed you, James Earl Jones) is inspired. Others are not. Something many people will find too troubling to dismiss is the decision to use only CGI to recreate two old characters in particular whose actors were either dead or way too old to be used in this particular film. It’s very good CGI, but it’s still obvious it’s CGI. This might end up being a bit of a watershed if CGI humans ever do get the point where we can’t tell the difference anymore, but we are not there yet, and while it is certainly a very interesting attempt, I can’t blame anyone for finding them just too off-putting.
But when it really comes down to it, I can’t bring myself to complain too much, because I really did have a ton of fun watching this movie, and I think most people will too. It’s not perfect, and I will let the debate over where it ranks compared to the other movies to those who care way more about that sort of thing than I ever will, but it is a well-crafted enough film (with a few genuinely beautiful and haunting scenes) to merit seeing on the big screen. Treat your inner Jedi this Christmas. You’ve earned it, anonymous reader I will likely never meet. At least I assume you have.