When George Lucas penned the first script for Star Wars: A New Hope he liberally borrowed from Errol Flynn swashbucklers, Flash Gordon serials, and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, now decades later we have Rogue One: A Star Wars Story which though dealing with the same galaxy “A long time ago and far far away” this prequel is more in keeping with such films as The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen than it is the rousing adventure stories that inspired the original. The numbered entries in the series are certainly more lighthearted adventures stories while this movie gives us a look at the darker side of the galaxy, and I don’t mean just the Empire as we find that members of the Rebel Alliance aren’t all that squeaky clean and noble as one might think.
Before I go any further I’d like to state that director Gareth Edwards has proven you can actually make a good Star Wars prequel, and though this story is decidedly grimmer than most of the entries in the series it does have some amazingly fun action and a wry sense of humor at times. That said this is still far from a perfect movie but where J.J. Abrams played it safe with Star Wars: A Force Awakens, mirroring major elements from A New Hope, Edwards really goes out on a limb with his film. Tonally and structurally it is unlike any of the previous Star Wars movies.
This movie even has a unique start as the story begins with a prologue, introducing Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who was a top weapons developer for the Empire before fleeing to a distant planet with his family to hide from his former employers, and then after we get the title card Rogue One (no standard Star Wars story crawl here) we jump ahead fifteen years. It’s here that we are introduced to Galen Erso’s now all grown up daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), and find out that her life hasn’t exactly been a bowl of cherries since the Empire came and snatched her dad away. The story of Rogue One is basically about the Rebellion needing Jyn’s help because she can get them a meeting with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) who was once a friend of father and also the man who raised Jyn after his abduction. The tricky thing is that Saw Gerrera is an extremist who broke from the Rebellion years ago (maybe they were a little too soft on evil) and so they need Jyn as a go-between.
Jyn is teamed up with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a top agent for the Rebels, and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) who is a reprogrammed Imperial droid and is the one to bring the most laughs to what is overall a pretty grim mission. Later they encounter a blind but awesome Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and mercenary Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) ex members of some kind of order that protected a Jedi temple, they then hook up with Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial cargo shuttle pilot who has defected from the Empire with a message from Jyn’s father about the construction of something called a Death Star. The first half of this movie could have been called Rogue One: A Star Wars Exposition Story as we meet a lot of people and are constantly jumping from one location to another (Note: This is the first Star Wars movie that places title cards to inform the audience which planet we are currently visiting as if it matters), and sadly with all this information and people that the film keeps throwing at us we really don’t get to know any of the characters all that well. The filmmakers are reduced to having one character introduce another with a brief explanation as to who they are, breaking the cardinal rule of “Show don’t tell” when it comes to creating a character.
Now I will say I did enjoy most of the performances in this film but due to the time constraints of the film we kind of lose character motivation. Jyn at first has no use for the Rebellion but then on a dime she changes to being all about taking down the Empire, Cassian Andor is a ruthless agent, and cold heated assassin for the Rebellion, who has a change of heart because…sorry we never find out why his heart grows three sizes that day. The reason the badass Force loving blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe and his mercenary pal Baze join up with our leads basically comes down to, “You hate the Empire? So do we, lets team-up!” And we never really learn why the Imperial shuttle pilot defected, we kind of get the idea that he at some point he befriended Jyn’s dad but the film doesn’t have time to get into that, not when we have some cool action set pieces to get to.
As chopping and inorganic as the first half of the movie is when the shit finally hits the fan, as in when Jyn leads a group of gung-ho rebels from amongst the hesitant Rebellion leaders (is there a term for a rebel from a rebellion?) that the movie becomes all kinds of awesome. The space battle in this movie blows all previous contenders away, and this film has the added bonus of cutting back and forth between this great space battle and equally great ground battle involving Imperial Walkers as well the infiltration mission conducted by Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO. Compare this to Phantom Menace where we had the cool Duel of the Fates lightsabre battle between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn being interrupted by the annoying as hell kid-Anakin whoo-hooing it up in space or Jar-Jar Binks and his “comedic” antics in battle with the droid army. If Garth Edwards had been able to stream line the movie just a tad he could have put this film in contention with The Empire Strikes Back.
Another element to this film that must be discussed is the appearances of characters from the original Star Wars;often through the aid of state of the art CGI. Chief example of this is Grand Moff Tarkin who was originally played by Peter Cushing back in 1977 but since the actor died in 1994 he has now been created with a fairly convincing CGI double. By “fairly convincing” I mean it wasn’t all that distracting and for the most part worked really well, yet this was not a cameo character but a major player in the movie so there was a lot of screen time for it to occasionally slip into the uncanny valley. Darth Vader also makes an appearance and though his screen is limited fans will delight to see the Sith Lord really kicking some ass, but why he was hanging out in Barad-dûr deep inside Mordor is something I’d like to know. Yet Darth Vader is not this film’s primary villain, no matter how much we wish it to do be, instead we get this guy.
Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who is the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military and Galen Erso’s old boss, is the man in charge of the construction of the Death Star and as villain’s go he’s fine, but he’s more bureaucratic evil than Dark Side evil. Krennic seems more concerned about job promotions than the anything else, if building a weapon that could subjugate a galaxy under the fist of tyranny could land him a better job title, and maybe the key to the executive washroom, he is totally down with that. This actually makes him a rather interesting antagonist in the long run.
Note: This movie brilliantly addresses one of the key story flaws in Star Wars: A New Hope as to why the Empire would create a super weapon with such a glaring Achilles heel. It’s rare that a sequel or prequel can actually improve or aid the original film but here Gareth Edwards succeeds.
Making a prequel to Star Wars: A New Hope is no easy task, right out of the gate you are saddled with the fact that most of the audience is going in knowing that the Rebels will succeed in stealing the plans to the Death Star, that throws a lot of the suspense right out the window, so what a filmmaker in this position has to do is give us characters we can root for as they strive to achieve that goal, sadly Edwards doesn’t quite succeed here. The chemistry between Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens was key to that film’s success, no matter how much shit you can give J.J. Abrams for basically ripping off the plot of A New Hope he did manage to create two new characters for the audience to fall in love with. Sadly this is not the case with Jyn and Cassian in Rogue One. Now I still really enjoyed this film, I particularly liked the decision to show the moral grey areas when fighting a war, and of course the sacrifices one will have to make to win in the end, but if they’d restructured that first act a little we could have had a really great movie. Overall this is a fun if flawed addition to the Star Wars Saga.