Right now we are seeing Disney test out a concept. With plans to deliver a new Star Wars film every year, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the result of moving beyond the episodic entries and into new territory. Sure, there have been novels, TV shows, comics and games that have expanded the universe (not to mention a couple Ewok movies), but this is something new. Fortunately, riding in on the wave of throwback fun that was The Force Awakens, Rogue One succeeds at being more than just a concept that’s fun to say out loud. This standalone story fits in well with the universe, while also serving as its own filmmaking effort.
Working from a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (with story credit going to Gary Whitta and ILM vet John Knoll), director Gareth Edwards has come into this world with something of a fresh take on the material. The idea was to make a Star Wars film that really emphasized the war aspect. As a result, the story is centered on the human resistance. Setting us at a time right before 1977’s Star Wars, we are getting back to that grittier look that began this franchise and exploring what it means to band together with others in an effort to fight against a tyrannical force of oppression.
I enjoyed the interest the film had in exploring a variety of characters who have all lost something and are now in need of…a new hope. From those made orphans by the growing power of the Empire to others whose faith in the force is put into jeopardy, we are seeing a film that attempts to put perspective on the many soldiers that have been involved in a series more concerned with Skywalkers and Jedis over the many decades of its existence. Of course, this being a series rooted in pulpy space adventures, the film places these ideas against a story that involves one of the bigger expressions of death out there.
Rogue One concerns this sentence from the opening scroll in the original Star Wars, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.” It’s a neat jumping off point and the film goes about turning that bit of information into the story of how an ensemble cast got together to explore new planets and fight back against the empire. In an attempt to make the most out of a plot with an objective we already know to be successful, Rogue One relies on other details to be successful.
Many of those details come in the form of new characters. Felicity Jones is Jyn Erso, an outlaw with ties to the Death Star’s head contractor. Diego Luna is Cassian Andor, a rebel spy with attitude. Alan Tudyk voices and provides the motion-capture for K-2S0, an Imperial enforcer droid re-programmed to be one of the sassy good guys. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are two ronin warriors searching for purpose. Riz Amhed is a scruffy-looking Imperial pilot looking to switch sides.
We follow this ragtag crew to a number of varied locations that emphasize the amount of work that goes into building lived-in worlds. Star Wars always has fun establishing new planets and this time around we get a city built into an asteroid, a planet defined by jagged canyons and rain and a jungle-beach planet ruled over by the Empire, assuring us that no one ever gets to have fun here. There is a good amount of practical work done to bring these places to life, which makes it a shame to see a number of CG and CG-enhanced characters that stick out far more than they should.
Also sticking out, but for different reasons, is the film’s villain. The great Ben Mendelsohn is here as Orson Krennic, the man who will happily take credit for the Death Star’s successful construction. His only problems are a desire for respect and the many problems created by the Rebels looking to hinder his progress. With all this, while cloaked in the sheen of a Star Wars villain who is equipped with blasters and his own special squad of Death Troopers, Mendelsohn may be dialing down some of his typical sliminess, but he still shines as a clear force of evil.
With all that is going on and the automatic high stakes that come with being a new Star Wars film in a world where even the series’ creator is not safe from the scorn of fans, Edwards has a lot of things to balance. One constant issue seems to be momentum. A film like this should be zipping by and while it would be hard to say Rogue One is a slog, it does feel like a bit more push could have been used in the film’s mid-section. Strangely, that’s less of a problem in the film’s conclusion, as we rush through a number of climaxes in order to provide one ending too many, regardless of how nicely it tries to tie into the first Star Wars.
Pacing is only a slight issue because of the weight associated with what transpires. Much to the film’s credit, it doesn’t back away from its grittier intentions. While we are still watching a big Star Wars movie designed to appeal to everyone, there is an effort to go in a darker direction. It makes sense, given the film’s other theme concerning sacrifice and doing what it takes to contribute to something larger than yourself. That may not help as far as the emotional ties found in some of the characters, but appreciation goes to seeing the film capitalize on the different sort of stakes that come with being a standalone entry.
There’s also the fun that you come to expect from Star Wars. This is a space opera after all and the film tries to not forget it. Giant action sequences are featured throughout and feel varied. Massive destruction and the fallout that comes from it allows for visual delight. The same goes for the space and aerial battles than ensue, while we also follow ground troops storming the beaches and firing off their blasters. Plus, the film’s sense of humor remains intact. Whether it’s coming from a snappy droid or out of basic comradery, Rogue One isn’t without its share of jokes.
We’ll see whether or not Rogue One is the film to compare all the other standalone Star Wars films to, but this was a fun watch. Getting the chance to see a film built within an established universe allows for a different sort of spin that proved to be a worthwhile trip. The blockbuster budget, ensemble cast and spirited energy all helped in this, but even after overblown rumors about reshoots, it seems like the force was strong with this one.