From the very opening moments of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first stand-alone chapter in the franchise (a story not focused on the Skywalker family), we can tell that we’re in for something a little different with this space adventure. The lack of an opening crawl, for example, says a lot about the film’s stand in the universe and its place in Disney’s stable. It’s a side-mission. A filler. The result should please die-hard fans but, unfortunately, those who aren’t will feel like it’s just another assembly-line product referencing the original films that gave the franchise glory.
Taking place between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope (I guess it could be called Episode 3.5), those disappointed by last year’s The Force Awakens will be glad to know that Rogue One doesn’t rehash the plot of previous films. Instead, it rehashes the stories of countless war movies before it.
Director Gareth Edwards, whose previous big credit is Godzilla, clearly came to this project with a three things in mind: make a darker war movie, pay tribute to the original Star Wars trilogy, and explain the creation of the Death Star. He succeeds on all fronts but fails to elevate the film above the conventional sci-fi-action-adventure tropes. While nostalgia and high production value might hide a lot of the film’s shortcomings, Rogue One feels too obvious and too predictable. Even without seeing the film, a true fan could predict the outcomes and the conclusions.
That said, it’s a darker film. People die. Stormtroopers have better aim. Spaceships crash. Things explode. People are cut up by lightsabers. For the first time, we’re getting a Star Wars film that focuses on the “war” part of the title. At certain points, it’s refreshing, magical and beautifully constructed. The cinematography, for instance, is genuinely groundbreaking. At other times, however, Rogue One feels like a bumpy ride where we lose interest in our protagonists and their mission. This is especially difficult to sit through when you’re able to predict the outcome. If you’re familiar with the universe, you’ll also feel the absence of the popular characters (Luke, Han, Chewie, Yoda, Obi-Wan, etc.). Even though we’re offered a few glimpses of Vader, Star Wars just isn’t the same without the Skywalker drama.
Reminiscent of Star Wars: The Force Awaken‘s Rey, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is left abandoned at a young age when her father (Mads Mikkelsen) is summonsed to create a weapon for The Empire. Many years later she is tasked with securing the plans for the Death Star after receiving a message from her captured father. Together with the help of a re-programmed Imperial droid named K-2SO, his owner Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a blind fighter who believes he is one with the force and a bunch of other ragtag misfits, they attempt the impossible. One of the great unresolved questions in Star Wars lore is how Princess Leia obtained the plans to the Death Star. Rogue One provides the answer.
The story does take a few of it’s cues from another Star Wars property. If you’ve seen Rebels, you’ll know what to expect here. Again, the battle scenes and the action pieces are solid, but aside from Mads Mikkelsen’s amazing performance and the very likable new Imperial droid (K-2SO), who offers the most comedic moments, there doesn’t seem to be any emotional impact. We’re not given enough backstory to actually care about our heroes. The last hour or so of Rogue One is nothing but a very large battle scene. It’s epic but probably carries on for too long.
Darth Vader’s heralded return is triumphant, of course. Sadly, he isn’t given a lot of screen time. With James Earl Jones once again providing the voice, Vader is as menacing as he was in A New Hope. Seeing him wield the red lightsaber again is probably the best thing about the film.
It’s not a bad story at all, but it could easily have been a really great one with a few tweaks. To be honest, most fans won’t care about the issues discussed here. They want more Star Wars, and Disney is willing to keep delivering it to them on a silver plate. And I’m okay with that.