Star Wars returned to big screens last year with the seventh entry in the franchise The Force Awakens to massive box office success and mostly giant blanket critical praise. At the time, while I enjoyed the return to the world of Wookies & Stormtroopers, I was slightly disappointed by the familiarity of it all. While not as offensively slavish a remake of A New Hope as some made it out to be, Force Awakens still suffered from more than a few lingering threads of the “Like Poetry It Rhymes” though process of George Lucas that sunk many on the prequel trilogy. So, the idea of the first in a series of spin offs Rogue One: A Star Wars Story going back as close as it could to the actual era of A New Hope wasn’t the most enthusiastic idea for me. Nostalgia has so overtaken our culture that simply displaying a few TIE fighters and Darth Vader could easily seem like enough for Disney instead of developing something more. As a Star Wars fan since childhood, the idea of expanding in newer directions the films haven’t taken seems more interesting to me than revisiting the old. The hope would be that the first Star Wars film to not directly focus on at least one Skywalker Family Member would feature more engaging new characters fascinated me more than seeing AT-ATs again.
The question going in really is can one be invested in these new characters knowing that their mission is a success? Luckily, Rogue One not only manages to get past that hurdle, but surpasses the very same attempts that Force Awakens moderately pulled off last year. By mostly keeping us entrenched in the story of this band of rebellion misfits trying to get these Death Star plans, we are fully immersed in the front lines of this conflict. With so many of these Star Wars films, we received small glimpses of people being shot in the head and falling over, casualties of war that were merely background extras as our leads stomped past Stormtroopers. Here, those casualties of war get a center stage as the Skywalkers are mere background mentions. We see rebel soldiers stand for what they believe in, even if it means going against the actual Rebellion organization. Rogue One is full of people with specific ideals they’re willing to die protecting, making their destination we’re aware of far more distant in the mind than the journey we see them on.
Chief among these people is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of one of the Death Star scientists. The determination and bubbling anger provided by Jones for this character is one of the more nuanced performances in the history of this franchise. She has all the makings of a Rey from Force Awakens, given her own origin that involves being left behind by multiple different parental figures. After her initial set-up, Jyn is slowly developed through her actions as a character instead of having things spelled out for us. From the moment she is sitting in her jail cell to when her lip quivers in frustration while being interrogated, we get Jyn’s personality, arrogant and brimming with a desire to clear her name from the reputation of her father. Jones fills in so many gaps that aren’t blatantly told to us, allowing Jyn to vibrantly express the regret and rage over her life that tells us all we need. Her determination to seek out her father figures allows her to make peace with her past over the second half of Rogue One in a very emotionally resonant fashion.
There’s a similar vibe that builds a solid rapport with the other members of the titular Rogue One team. We get a view mentions and glimpses of their roles & lives. Not enough to bog down our run time, yet just enough to keep us engaged in them as characters. There’s Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a dedicated yet conflicted rebel soldier who serves as a solid foil to Jyn in the issues of establishment both with the Empire and the Rebels. His robot aide K-2s0 (Alan Tudyk), a converted Imperial droid with a genuine emotional attachment to those who have faith in him beyond his appearance. K-2S0 is probably Rogue One‘s breakout character, with his quips evenly weighted with a surprisingly emotional pull from his loyalty and actions.
Two stowaways of the spirituality enthused Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his loyal sharp shooter buddy Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) are honestly the major highlights of this group. They’re by gone relics of an era where they were keepers of Jedi crystals, yet having varying issues on whether or not The Force even affects them as people. They show that The Force truly represents a religious tether that keeps those who feel disenfranchised attached to the world around them, making their eventual fates so investing. It brings the universe a bit closer without over explaining how The Force works like certain other prequel stories do. It’s the type of expansion of the universe that’s made stuff like the animated series Star Wars Rebels so impactful. It broadens our understanding of the universe by broadening our understanding of these people living in it.
There’s more than a few other characters who are made more by their performers rather than their roles in the story. Rogue One has a pretty impressive cast that’s mainly there to service one of two threads storywise: the impact of Jyn & her main crew finding the Death Star plans and firmly connecting things to A New Hope. The efforts of Mads Mikkelson, Forest Whitaker and Riz Ahmed are more in the vein of the former, thus having more resonance. Whitaker in particular stands out in that fashion despite the brevity of his role. Though his decisions plot wise can often be questionable, the tics and raspy voice he uses add to the design of a man who’s been through intergalactic hell and will not stop in his quest for ultimate destruction of the Empire away from the Rebellion’s system that’s ineffectual. Yet, he also forgets about the concept in strength in numbers that Jyn believes in for destroying these evil forces. A strength in diverse numbers that holds this small rag tag group together enough to fly by the seat of their pants and hope things stick.
That tug and pull of unstructured rebellion against a bureaucratic system is obviously keen in everyone’s minds and is shown with cold sterile subversion during the scenes involving the inner workings of The Empire. Unfortunately, these are the scenes where Rogue One falters most. The initially intimidating Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) loses steam as a villain by way of having his arc of realizing how little he matters in terms of the Empire’s ultimate path is weighed more in allowing nods to the original Star Wars trilogy rather than him being a memorable villain. Nods like having Grand Moff Tarkin recreated from the late Peter Cushing’s visage in advanced but still sort of creepy CG or Darth Vader showing up to do a bit of force choking. The fan service-y moments are at least more plot focused than they are in Force Awakens, but call far more attention to themselves just for the sake of emphasizing how close this is to the original trilogy. To the point where they seem awkwardly edited into the overall story of Rogue One, particularly with the finale that includes little to none of the people we’ve come to know.
The elaborate CG works far better when director Gareth Edwards uses them to unveil the detail in the Star Wars universe Rogue One inhabits. All these vistas feel more diverse than any of the worlds in Force Awakens, from shiny beach shores to rainy rock formations. Even the Mos Eisley-esque crowded city planet has a bit more diversity in terms of aliens and tightened corners that give it a distinct stench thanks to a meld of incredible set design and a mixture of practical & CG effects. Plus, the devil is in the war torned details as the Empire’s entrenchment is shown far and wide. It’s all perfect setup to show just how ineffectual the Rebellion’s efforts are up to that point, allowing a few rogues who have lived directly in the face of this suppression to know just how to attack from within with harsh impact. Edwards uses the scenery to make the later battle sequences all the more impactful. This is particularly evident when these people use their knowledge of their environment to battle the Empire from within, similar to the way we saw Luke Skywalker used his skills from Tatooine to fight off the Empire at their own game.
However, the true strength of separation with Rogue One against the original trilogy is really its strength in a diverse number of non-Jedi folk. The more common everyday human, alien and robot beings who are united by a desire to be on the same even level playing field. It’s a message one can cling to in times of turmoil, which becomes all too familiar with our recent political climate in mind. While Rogue One doesn’t shatter new ground both for the Star Wars universe or our own in terms of fascist commentary, it’s a solidly entertaining war film that aims to showcase just how bold a rag tag group of like minded people from varying backgrounds can find common ground in a fight they can believe in. Even if their efforts turn south, their example can send a message of hope. A singular story that ties loose ends without over explaining their purpose. Rogue One shines us in a direction that we could really use right now, both in terms of injecting variety into a familiar universe and hope that we could use for our own futures.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Creepy CG Faces of Dead Actors
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