[The following review may contain spoilers. You’ve been warned.]
If The Force Awakens had a heavy burden to bear being the culmination of over 30 years of fan theories and speculation, Rogue One has an equally heavy burden, purporting to bridge the gap between prequel and original while simultaneously managing to tell a compelling story on its own without overstepping its bounds. Luckily, it succeeds on all fronts in this endeavor.
Rogue One is labeled “A Star Wars Story,” not an “Episode” proper, and it establishes itself apart from the regular Star Wars canon in a few ways — some cinematic, some dramatic, some thematic — and it is in these differences that Rogue One excels. There’s no opening crawl explaining the situation, no sweeping John Williams soundtrack (which isn’t to say that Michael Giacchino doesn’t handle the task ably — he does), no Jedi bringing a mystical air to the proceedings, hell, there’s not even a proper “I have a bad feeling about this” (but only just). However, Rogue One does give us things we haven’t seen before in a Star Wars Episode — a flashback, a time jump, helpful notes on the screen telling us where we are and why it’s important, and, most importantly, actors we’ve actually heard of before, and not just because of Star Wars movies.
The most important difference noted above is assuredly the absence of Jedi and, by and large, Sith (though the appearance of Darth Vader, once again voiced by the eminent James Earl Jones, is much appreciated and powerful in its brevity). While we still have staunch believers in the Force here (most notable is Chirrut Imwe, played fantastically by Donnie Yen), we don’t have any prominent Jedi characters in the film. Realistically, it makes sense, as we’re smackdab in the middle of Anakin Skywalker annihilating nearly all of them and his son realizing his power. At the time of this film’s story, there’s only two Jedi out there — Yoda and Obi-Wan — and both of them are in hiding. The lack of Jedi really brings out the “science” in science fiction, and thus really brings out the “wars” in Star Wars. Without these mystical, powerful players on the table, what we’re left with is gritty, character-driven all-out battles between soldiers, and the fact that it takes place in the Star Wars universe can become easy to forget even amidst X-Wings and TIE Fighters zipping about and the newly-constructed Death Star looming overhead.
The main hero of our story is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of engineer Galen Erso (a fantastic Mads Mikkelsen), who worked on the construction of the Death Star somewhat against his will, and who may hold the key to its demise. Jyn is a sort of Han Solo-type character, or at least what Han Solo was supposed to be — an antihero who’s really only dragged into the proceedings against her will or for her own gain. In her case, she’s brought on by Rebel Alliance leaders Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, both of whom are back from the prequels and give excellent ties back to that trilogy without dredging up too many painful memories of Gungans or pod racing. Jyn is tasked with finding her father, and to that end teams up with the morally gray Rebel pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the repurposed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in order to locate the Rebel extremist Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker). All three of these characters are stand-outs to me, with Andor and Gerrara highlighting the moral ambiguity of the resistance, previously untouched in the Star Wars franchise which decidedly favored their cause, and K-2SO being the main source of humor with his terse commentary reminiscent of a clash between Threepio and Marvin the Paranoid Android. Tudyk goes a long way to give this character depth and the CGI used to depict him is able to stand right up there with the practical effects used elsewhere.
On that note, however, there are other CGI characters who don’t fare as well as K-2SO does. Both Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing have been recreated with CGI for this film, with Cushing having passed away years ago and Fisher’s face being largely comprised of silicon these days. Fisher’s cameo is mercifully short, but Cushing’s Governor (not yet Grand Moff) Tarkin gets way too much screentime to be comfortable, and for a film with such great CGI elsewhere he just looks clunky, disjointed, and quite frankly terrifying. It’s not quite as bad as Tron’s CGI Jeff Bridges, but it’s not nearly as good as Ant-Man’s CGI Michael Douglas.
Jyn’s mission is fairly simple — retrieve the plans to the Death Star to aid the rebellion in its destruction — and the conflicts she finds herself in serve very well to highlight just how bad the Empire’s reign was. There are several brutal fight scenes (including a spectacular one featuring Donnie Yen’s martial arts skills) and one particularly well-done moment showed a young child caught in the crossfire. This is just one example of how well Rogue One sets itself apart from the Episodes, all of which focus on important figures and powerful players in the conflict. Rogue One’s characterizations are nothing short of outstanding, and relationships like Cassian and K-2SO, Jyn and Saw, and Chirrut and best friend Baze (Jiang Wen) are at the heart of this like they should be in any good war movie.
Rogue One is perfectly suited as a standalone film, but that doesn’t stop it from tying itself into the franchise in very satisfying ways. There are plenty of fun cameos, most of which make sense (except for one which was fun but unequivocally stupid), and the aforementioned Darth Vader is able to punctuate the film with his foreboding presence, lent even more gravitas by James Earl Jones’s still powerful voice acting. It was a marvel even in 1977 that such a (let’s face it) silly-looking character could be a dark and even frightening presence, but he manages it yet again here. Additionally, the film ties itself into the first film (A New Hope these days) spectacularly, ending mere minutes before the 1977 original begins.
Don’t come into Rogue One expecting too much of a happy ending. After all, we all saw Episode IV and we know what state the galaxy is in. What Rogue One does, and does extremely well, is answer a simple question that we never bothered to look at from the rest of the franchise — how did they know where to hit the Death Star in the first place? Where did they get those plans? They got them from Jyn et al, apparently, but unfortunately (and undeniably realistically), nearly every single character in this film paid the price for them to get it. It’s nice to know that their labors paid off and the Death Star was eventually destroyed (twice!), but it is of course a shame they never got to see it. But you can, and you should.