It’s a little surprising that, at my age, it still isn’t difficult (at all) to get excited about a new Star Wars film. And this is coming from someone who has lived through both the mammoth hype that was THE PHANTOM MENACE and arguably the biggest hype for any film ever made in THE FORCE AWAKENS. But even though I did notice that the anticipation for this film wasn’t as profound and monstrous as its predecessor from last December, Star Wars fans everywhere couldn’t wait to witness the next entry into theatrical Star Wars lore – and the first entry in the Star Wars Anthology film series – ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.
Star Wars fans will be familiar with the film’s premise, as it is mentioned in the opening crawl of the original 1977 STAR WARS film (A NEW HOPE): Rebel Alliance spies have stolen the plans for the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. This is the singular incident that sets the events of the original Star Wars trilogy in motion. ROGUE ONE tells the story of those spies and their now-fateful mission. Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) is a drifter, wanted by the Empire for various petty crimes, who is also sought after by the Rebel Alliance. The Rebels want to obtain her help in locating her father, the scientist Galen Erso (played by Mads Mikkelson), who is responsible for designing the Death Star and its infamous superlaser. The Rebels obtain intelligence that a rogue Imperial pilot has delivered a message to Saw Gerrera (played by Forrest Whitaker), purportedly from Dr. Erso himself. Jyn, along with Rebel Alliance Captain Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) and his droid sidekick K2-SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), sets off to the planet Jedho in order to find Saw Gerrera, and eventually, Dr. Erso himself.
The first thing that fans will notice is that the structure of this film is very different from any of the previous Star Wars films in that it deals much less with the mystical/science fiction side of Star Wars lore – the Force, the Jedi, space battles etc. – and much more in the grittiness of war itself, as well as its casualties. It’s a little hard to go into specifics without drifting into spoiler territory, but I will say that the action sequences (particularly the climactic battle) gave off a very “World War II film” vibe. It reminded me of the great battle scenes in past war films such as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, PLATOON, and BATAAN, just to name a few. Star Wars has never really showcased war in that manner, and director Gareth Edwards (who also directed the recent GODZILLA reboot) did a really great job of bringing that realistic, tenacious, and bitter side of war to the front lines, which made for a very unique and exceptional Star Wars experience.
There are plenty of nods in ROGUE ONE to previous Star Wars films. These “Easter eggs” make the film that much more rich and enjoyable, should one be privy to the references. I won’t give them away here, because these really should be experienced without any foreknowledge whatsoever. I will say, though, that a lot of unexpected (and I do mean unexpected) characters do show up for cameos, and as a huge Star Wars fan, it was an absolute delight seeing these characters again, and the fact that it was kept a surprise made it all the better. Though the one character that, from the trailers, we already knew was going to be a part of ROGUE ONE is the man himself, Darth Vader. Keeping this review spoiler-free, what I will say regarding Vader in this film is simply: this is not a Darth Vader story. He is involved in it, but it’s not about him. As a result, Vader doesn’t get as much screen time as a fanboy like me would’ve wanted. But despite that, the moments that he does appear on-screen are well worth the price of admission. I don’t know any Star Wars fan (that has already seen this film) who is not happy with how Darth Vader was used here. Needless to say, the Vader scenes are quite possibly the most memorable, and will stay with you well after you have left the theater.
To my previous point, yes, this movie is not about Darth Vader – it is about Jyn Erso, and Felicity Jones goes a good job in this role. I can’t really say anything bad about the acting performances; though there isn’t anything Oscar-worthy here, it was as good as you’d expect out of a Star Wars film (the prequels notwithstanding). My real issue in this regard is that none of the characters were given much depth, character-wise. You don’t really get much of a backstory on Jyn Erso – in fact, the script just gives you the bare minimum amount of backstory to help progress the main narrative. Nor do you get much character development from the other members of the ragtag “Rogue One” team. In films that are primarily about the action, character development really doesn’t have a huge effect on the film. But where this can go wrong is when you have an emotional scene, such as a death; as the viewer, you feel the sting of losing a character when said character has been well-developed, because it feels like, in a strange way, you know the character personally. This is the main problem with ROGUE ONE – while the characters are all likeable, they are given very little depth, if any. As a result, when everything goes down during the climax, the emotion we are supposed to be feeling for them isn’t quite there, which lessens the impact of the moment.
All that being said, the crutches that the film uses for this is its very well-written overall storyline, along with its very well-choreographed action scenes. These are what, in my opinion, help give the film’s big moments its much-need emotional boost. The screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy captures the essence of what Star Wars is while putting a fresh twist on it – the things that you glance over when you see war is fiercely put on display; war is hell, after all. And on the acting front, I have to give special recognition to Alan Tudyk as K2-SO, the comic relief of the story. The deadpan humor reminded me a lot of Dave Bautista’s Drax from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, and it was not overdone; on the contrary, it was used as needed and timed rather perfectly. Other than Darth Vader himself, K2-SO just might be the most beloved character of ROGUE ONE.
In the end, as a Star Wars fan, I left the theater completely happy and satisfied. This film will not be a hard sell for anyone who is likewise enamored by that galaxy far, far away. But what I think is interesting about ROGUE ONE is that it absolutely and completely works as just a straight-up war film. So if you know anyone who has yet to be bitten by the Star Wars bug (and likes the war genre), ROGUE ONE would serve as a great “gateway drug,” especially since its story leads directly into A NEW HOPE, the film that started it all. Star Wars fans, what are you waiting for – go see ROGUE ONE right now! And I encourage all non-Star Wars fans to do the same. Who knows, by the time EPISODE VIII comes out next December, you could very well be “one of us…one of us…one of us.”