ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
By Nathan Evans
I wasn’t expecting much from ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’. Like most nerds, I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since I was a kid, but after the disappointing prequels (which I was just the right age for and actually liked at the time (except for ‘Attack of the Clones’, that movie always sucked)) the story was finished for me. Anakin Skywalker’s arc ended in an act of redemption, the good guys won, the Empire was destroyed, and I was satisfied; I didn’t need anything else. So when Disney gained the rights to the franchise a couple of years ago, I had a hard time getting excited. I’m sad to say that the feeling didn’t change much after seeing director J.J. Abrams first entry in the new series, ‘The Force Awakens’, last year. While I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of nerds that have recently been turning on a movie they claimed to like before, I will say that, while I enjoyed the movie, I wasn’t blown away by it. It was a solid, if familiar, entry in the Star Wars franchise.
Well, I’m happy to say that ‘Godzilla’ director Gareth Edwards’ film ‘Rogue One’ has finally gotten me excited for ‘Star Wars’ again. It’s not only the best ‘Star Wars’ film ever made (that’s only if you don’t count the mind blowing twist from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ by the way), but it’s also one of the best films of the year. I’m now officially onboard.
Anyone who pays attention to pop culture doesn’t need me to tell them, but ‘Rogue One’ is a prequel to ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’. The new film chronicles the Rebel Alliance’s mission to capture the plans to the evil Empire’s latest weapon of mass destruction, The Death Star; the same plans that Luke Skywalker and his cohorts utilized in the climax of the original film.
‘The Theory of Everything’’s Felicity Jones takes center stage as Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso, the man who created the infamous Death Star. We follow her from childhood, where her father was conscripted against his will to build the weapon, to adulthood, where she’s conscripted against her will to join the Rebel Alliance in an effort to undo her father’s work. Along the way she joins forces with a shadowy agent for the Alliance, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (voiced and mocapped by Alan Tudyk), a blind warrior in tune with the force, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and his gun-toting buddy, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), as well as a reformed Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Together they find themselves on a path to launching the final desperate mission to seize the plans and prevent the Empire from utilizing their weapon to enslave the galaxy.
As you can plainly see, this film is stuffed with, not only an unwieldily cast of characters, but a wealth of backstory to explore. It would have been easy for the film to end up an unruly mess on par with ‘Batman V. Superman’, but instead Edwards handles everything economically, with the characters themselves getting the short end of the stick unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong, the characters that round out the film are all memorable and leave an impression, but, ultimately, we don’t get to know them all that well; with Jyn herself being the most notable example. In a way it makes sense: the mission takes precedence over everything else, but as a viewer it would’ve been nice to learn more about them. You can look at this in one of two ways: that the characters are underdeveloped (the pessimistic view) or that we’re really just left wanting more from them (the optimistic one); I like to believe the latter; they definitely serve as possible fertile ground for future movies.
At any rate, the performances behind the characters are strong; the real standouts being Mads Mikkelson’s turn as Jyn’s father Galen and Ben Mendelsohn’s as the film’s primary villain, the conniving and sadistic Orson Krennic. I’ve come to expect nothing but the best from Mikkelson at this point, but Mendelsohn comes as something of a surprise. I’m familiar with Mendelsohn’s penchant for portraying weasel-like thugs, but I had no idea he could be so frightening. Despite his meager stature, there were more than a few moments where he made me genuinely uneasy.
While we’re on the subject of being uneasy, the act of resurrecting dead actors to reprise past roles has always been a tenuous one. You only have to look back at those disturbing Orville Redenbacher commercials from a decade ago, or that episode of ‘The Sopranos’ where the creators resurrected the actress that played Tony Soprano’s mother to see just how wrong CGI replacements for actors can go. ‘Rogue One’ is the first film to do it successfully. While I won’t name what character from the original film reappears here in the interest of spoilers, I will say that the way it’s done is literally jaw dropping. There’s no way around it: it is the single best use of CGI I’ve seen in any film period. Whatever technology the filmmakers used to achieve it also comes in handy with a cameo from another familiar face later in the film that I also won’t spoil here.
With the technical achievements aside, the film also brings a sense of moral ambiguity and complexity that has been missing from ‘Star Wars’ since its inception. Until now the series has always been a simple good guys vs. bad guys morality tale— black and white— ‘Rogue One’ sets itself apart by viewing the universe in shades of grey. The villains believe they’re acting in the galaxy’s best interests and the heroes do terrible things in the name of their rebellion. It’s a breath of fresh air that gives us a taste of what the films that occupy this universe can be.
‘Rogue One’ also sets itself apart with its fresh look. By design the series has always stood firm in the realm of the mythological. Edwards’ film is the first to make things feel real. When the battle scenes begin, it would be easy to mistake them for a Ken Burns war documentary if it weren’t for all the blaster bolts and spaceships flying around. It’s an inspired choice that makes the losses the film incurs feel even more meaningful.
To wrap this already overlong review up, I’ll just state things plain: ‘Rogue One’ is an achievement. While it trades in deep ‘Star Wars’ mythology, prior knowledge is not required to enjoy this film, but fans in particular will find a lot to rave about (a brutal scene that features Darth Vader specifically). When all is said and done, the film should be commended merely for being as good as it is while also featuring an extended cameo from Forest Whitaker… that guy ruins everything.
RATING: 5 OUT OF 5