Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ushers in a new era for Star Wars fans. Beginning with last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens and now continuing here, Disney and Lucasfilm will be giving us an annual new adventure within the operatic science fiction world created by George Lucas almost 40 years ago. The first 30 years of that gave us six theatrical films, a number that will be doubled by its 43rd year.
So where does Rogue One fit into all of this? It’s a bit of an oddball. Eschewing the Skywalker saga of mythical Good vs. Evil storytelling, it instead opts to illuminate more grounded areas of the Star Wars universe. In that regard, it actually has more in common with the two Ewoks TV movies from the ‘80s than it does its lightsaber duel-filled big budget brethren.
Set right before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, we are now finally shown the harrowing adventure that led to the Rebel Alliance obtaining the plans for the Empire’s first Death Star and how to destroy it. Our protagonists are a ragtag group of rebels, extremists, and all around troublemakers who disembark on a planet-hopping crusade to set the Rebellion on a course that will eventually see the Empire’s destruction.
“Eventually” is the keyword here. Anyone who has seen the original 1977 film knows that the Rebels do indeed use said plans to destroy the Death Star, with Luke Skywalker himself firing the shot that eradicates the superweapon. Because this truest instance of victory comes within the film that Rogue One is a prequel to, we are left with a rather downbeat film whose central conceit is hope. While you go into each new Star Wars film expecting for a main character or two to meet their end, the odds of survival for our protagonists here are lower than ever before.
Leading the pack of new characters is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a loner of a troublemaker who also happens to be the daughter of the Death Star’s creator, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen). Raised by fanatical rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, bringing live action life to a character from The Clone Wars TV series), Jyn has all of the training that a war-time hero requires, but none of the passion. Both the Empire and the Rebellion have destroyed her life, albeit in different ways, and she wants no part of either. Fate, of course, intervenes.
Jones’ strong female lead is backed but a wildly diverse and interesting assortment of misfits that includes Alliance Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Imperial pilot defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), badass Force mystic Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), gruff realist Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and a reprogrammed smart ass Imperial enforcer droid named K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). In keeping with the rest of the franchises, particularly the original trilogy and The Force Awakens, all are given great personalities and many a chance to shine brightly.
On the villainous front, things are a tad more familiar. Our chief antagonist is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Director of the Empire’s advanced weaponry division and the commander of the Death Star. Krennic is an intelligent, but arrogant adversary who cares less about his objectives at hand and more about rising through the Imperial ranks at any cost, often leading to almost career-ending disaster for himself. He is a man who craves status and through him we get our greatest big screen look into the politics of the Empire. As expected, loads of backstabbing and malevolent machinations are the order of the day.
Beyond just hordes of stormtroopers and blast-happy weaponry, Krennic is backed by the likes of returning foes Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader. For Tarkin, through the miracle of technology, we see Peter Cushing reprising his role from the original 1977 film posthumously. Whether or not such things should be done is a topic for another day, but I will say that he looks pretty great in most shots. Mind you it is never not clear that we are seeing a state of the art computer rendering, but he is incredibly life-like.
Vader, on the other hand, is fully old school. We have a hulking man in the classic suit, with the ever-chilling vocals of a returning James Earl Jones emanating from within. Seeing both Vader and Tarkin in action again was a massive treat for me, but be careful not to expect them to feature throughout. This is very much Krennic’s film.
Vader and Tarkin aren’t the only familiar faces who show up during the film’s running time, but I’ll leave you to discover the others yourself. Rogue One is littered with both callbacks to the prequels and call forwards to the original trilogy, but such moments never reach a point of oversaturation. In fact, beyond a tiny beat here and there, the majority of them all feel natural. The worst thing a prequel can do is wink at the audience too much about what will narratively be coming in the future. Instead, a prequel should strive to further enrich the film that it is preceding and lucky for Star Wars fans, that’s what Rogue One does for the majority of its running time. It further enriches Star Wars: A New Hope.
Rogue One is not without its problems, of course. There’s a disjointed nature to the first two acts, especially early on when it is continuously cutting back and forth between multiple characters on multiple planets. The wonky editing eventually dissipates once our heroes finally come together as a team in the second act, but until that moment, things feel a bit off in terms of editing and pacing.
The aforementioned enrichment of the films that will follow the story told here is also a bit of a hindrance. While such interconnectedness is an asset to Rogue One in regards to its place within the franchise as a whole, it ultimately hurts it as a standalone film. In that regard, it almost plays like a prequel tie-in comic or novel brought to life in big budget splendor, more than it does a singular film.
There is also something to be said for both the narrative and tonal differences. Rogue One is a tale of good versus evil, but the evil is of a human nature. Aside from Vader and the spiritual ramblings of Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe, the Force is something spoken of, but not experienced. There are no lightsaber duels or Jedi feats of daring-do to be found within this movie. If you come to Star Wars loving that aspect of the franchise the most, you will likely leave the theater disappointed.
That’s the true beauty of Rogue One and the “A Star Wars Story” subset of films that it kicks off. We will still be getting our Skywalker-centric episodic saga every other year for the time being, but now we will also be exploring altogether different areas of Star Wars in-between those films. Rogue One shines its light on the operations of both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire during the franchise’s classic period, while also giving us a taste of what Imperial occupation and the rebellion were like for those living in pain and sorrow amidst them.
Rogue One might give audiences a different experience in terms of plot and character focus, but this is still very much a Star Wars movie. It’s a thrilling, pulpy space opera adventure from start to finish that is filled with excitement, terror, sorrow, and laughter. Despite its shiftier elements, Lucasfilm, director Gareth Edwards, and the rest of the talent behind this spin-off have very much delivered everything that one expects to emotionally experience when stepping into this world. It might not be one of the best films in the franchise, but it is far from the worst. If you love Star Wars, you’re probably going to love Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.