Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Opens December 16
All seven episodes of the Star Wars saga have been about fighting (or, in the case of the underrated prequels, accidentally surrendering to) fascism. But by the time the series was revived in last year’s Episode VII, The Force Awakens, the movie’s insistence on reprising the structure of A New Hope (or, as the strident insist, Just Star Wars) put the Empire, er, excuse me, the First Order at something of a remove. The heroes fought fascistic villains because, well, the heroes of A New Hope fought fascistic villains; even the fascistic villains of Force Awakens seemed to be in those roles because of their respect for their in-movie heritage.
Force Awakens had too much else to recommend it—wholly delightful new characters, gorgeous cinematography and effects work, an infusion of J.J. Abrams wit—for that to matter too much, but it is inescapable that Rogue One, the first non-episode Star Wars movie, is more fully felt in the realm of standing up to demagoguery, in a way that lends it 2016 relevance, however accidentally. The movie flashes back to the weeks before Just Star Wars, spinning out a whole story from the plot catalyst of that movie: the plans for the Death Star delivered via R2D2 to Obi-Wan Kenobi, exposing the deadly space station’s structural weakness to be exploded the Rebel Alliance. It turns out, that structural weakness wasn’t a bug, but a fascism-fighting feature, included by the project’s conscripted architect, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Let no detail go unexplained in the new forever franchises.
The movie reveals Ero’s plight and plan through the eyes of his daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), who is rescued from Imperial jail by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his semi-faithful robot sidekick K-2SO (CGI plus Alan Tudyk), at first to provide a way to contact former Rebel and current extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who took care of Jyn for a decade or so, earlier in her life. But eventually Jyn leads a crew of particularly scruffy-looking (though presumably not nerf-herding) rebels on a mission to retrieve the plans that will reveal the Death Star’s weaknesses, as project manager Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, in one of his least sweaty roles to date) glowers and murders.
Some of the storytelling, especially in the movie’s flabby midsection, seems designed to appeal primarily to people who love Star Wars ancillaries—backstory-heavy novels and comics that explain how characters got to wherever they are before the actual movie starts. There is a lot of explaining in Rogue One about why some people want some other people to go to some place for some particular reason, but it turns out someone else wants them to go to that place for a different particular reason. Even when the story sorts itself out, it seems of a piece with what used to be called the Expanded Universe books and video games.
That’s not the only Star Wars revival going on here: This movie is, in fact, a prequel, and if it provides some of the darkness, grit, and seriousness that adult fans craved from the George Lucas-directed prequel trilogy, it also does a lot of the same stuff those prequels did—for that matter, that the much-maligned special editions of the original trilogy did, too. There are cameos from familiar Star Wars characters major and minor, winks at the audience, and various bits of fan service. Reader, I grinned at almost every bit of this, including a stupid pun delivered by none other than Darth Vader (voiced, as ever, by James Earl Jones; no word on the whereabouts of Hayden Christensen). I did this unburdened by any nagging feelings of hypocrisy; this is the wonderful life you can have by letting go of your prequel hatred.
For the more burdened among you, Rogue One will instantly qualify as the best Star Wars prequel ever. I’m not so sure, even though I loved a lot of it. It’s most distinctive as a stylistic departure from the original Star Wars template. Abrams took some baby steps with The Force Awakens; he was imitating Lucas, but his Spielberg/Lucas imitations were already so practiced by this point that the movie was also unmistakably his, from a style (and rushed-plotting) perspective. But Gareth Edwards, director of the majestic if human-deficient 2014 Godzilla, has made a movie with a lot of familiar series iconography (and plenty of toyetic variations; some new Stormtrooper costumes, for example, as well as some of the most inventive Stormtrooper-busting of the series) alongside plenty of techniques that haven’t really been seen in the previous movies. He often uses shallow focus to keep the action looking ground-level and immediate, yet he also has a painterly sense of how to compose wider shots, like a breathtaking view of the Death Star, faint and cloudlike in the distant sky. And if you’re going to include fan-service Vader footage, he sure introduces the hell out of him, casting a gigantic, immediately recognizable actual shadow over Mendelsohn as he arrives to grovel.
It makes sense that this movie looks and feels different than the main episodes; it provides a glimpse into other corners of the Star Wars galaxy, still the most invitingly strange and vast of the now-obligatory cinematic universes. The movie lacks characters as immediately likable as Rey, Finn, and Poe, but Felicity Jones makes a compelling heroine, even if the movie shortchanges her status as a “criminal” (I was interested in what she was up to between the ages of sixteen and thirtysomething, and sighed when I realized I’ll probably be expected to read a tie-in novel to find out anything more). Donnie Yen is wonderful as blind man who is not technically a Jedi, but might have been, had he been born at a different time; it’s a fascinating look at how the Force (which gets no official work-outs from the good guys here) is perceived by someone without any formal instruction or even necessarily knowledge of it. And the droid K-2SO is perfect—a droller, less panicked version of the naysaying C3PO who longs to be handed a blaster.
I wish Edwards and his collaborators had stayed more intimate for more of the climax, which is showstopping and wildly entertaining, but often in that familiar Star Wars way, adding in a fleet of pilots and plenty of anonymous soldiers on both sides. That Rogue One is supposed to distinguish itself, genre-wise, as a “war movie” is a strange conceit for a franchise that literally has “war” in its title. But it is, indeed, less swashbuckling than the previous installments, and despite the too-crowded cast of underwritten characters amidst a sometimes overplotted story, the movie’s emotions land. Before the final battle commences, Jones has a particularly rousing plea for standing up and fighting for the Rebel Alliance’s beliefs, delivered with a directness that could have easily been cornball but I found surprisingly touching. It’s probably too generic to call this business political; after all, who isn’t against fascism, in this day and age? Oh, right. As easy as it would be to decry this epic backstory yarn perpetuating the goal of turning Star Wars from an occasional event to an annual obligation, maybe 2016 has taught me not to take its simple, freedom-fighting pleasures for granted.