MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Sci-Fi Action/ Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker; Voices of: Alan Tudyk, James Earl Jones/ Runtime: 133 minutes
Following the release of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, I feel that it is easy to say beyond a reasonable doubt that the Star Wars franchise arguably truly was as popular as it’s ever been. Yet at the same time the beloved franchise also found itself standing at a crossroads. I say this because due to George Lucas’ absolutely polarizing prequel trilogy, the sci-fi saga has put in the work to resurrect its original image and feel. Indeed while that has meant a wonderful return to practical filmmaking and concise storytelling, it also has led many to chime in claims that Force Awakens, while a great Star Wars film, does feel like an echo of A New Hope, the 1977 blockbuster that started it all. So because of all this an important and urgent question had spread like wildfire amongst fans and it was this: Can any new Star Wars titles remain beholden to what made the original films great, while also at the same time give us a unique and special narrative to follow and be engaged by? Well if Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is any indicator then I can safely say that the answer to this question is, thus far, an unequivocal and resounding “Yes. Plain and Simple.” Indeed thanks to terrific acting across the board, the specific vision of director Gareth Edwards, a fantastic story, and a deep and firmly rooted connection to what makes a Star Wars film great in the first place we can all now look at this film and see the potential for incredible things in the future of this extremely beloved sci-fi franchise.
The plot is as follows: Set sometime after Revenge of the Sith and a little while before A New Hope, Rogue One focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young woman who, as a child had to watch her mother get killed and her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) be taken by Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (an actually effective Ben Mendelsohn) to “work” in the Empire’s Advanced Weapons Research branch. Since then, she has spent her life on the run from the Empire and doing pretty much anything required in order to survive, but soon she finds herself having to reenter the fight when Rebel forces take her to their HQ on Yavin 4 and tell her that an Imperial pilot has defected and is holed up with her old mentor Saw Gerrera (an absolutely welcome and wonderful Forest Whittaker) and in possession of a message from her father warning of a new superweapon that the Empire has been developing and which is now frighteningly nearing completion (3 guesses as to what it is and the first 2 and ¾ don’t count). Thus Jyn and a rag-tag team including Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a former Imperial droid that has a tendency to say exactly what’s on his mind named K-2SO, and a blind warrior monk with a deep faith in The Force, and who also gives us one of the best and marketing-worthy quotes about the Force ever I might add, named Chirrut Îmwe now find themselves heading out on a dangerous mission to find Gerrera, get him to hand over the pilot, and then find Jyn’s father in order to find out more about this weapon and see if it can be destroyed…..(dun dun dun!!)
Now in its efforts towards finding the balance between the old and new Rogue One decides to start this process off with its conceit and approach as they decide to place a magnifying glass on a story that audiences think they already know due to a single line that the opening scroll of dialogue that A New Hope has provided us as audiences with, and then they have managed to make the story feel absolutely fresh due to putting a much heavier emphasis on the “Wars” aspect of Star Wars and exploring a much grittier, more realistic Dirty Dozen/ Magnificent Seven kind-of feel to the proceedings. Indeed this is a combination which is a huge success as not only does it lend itself to a thrilling, fun and dark narrative that is full of legitimate surprises, but even allows for the introduction of elements and details that actually make its predecessors stronger from exciting original characters, worlds and ideas all the way to giving us some of if not the best Darth Vader material that we’ve ever seen. Now since I’ve officially released the cat from the bag I will address it now so I can move on to other topics: Yes Darth Vader is in this movie and while he may not be in the movie a whole lot I feel that they use him perfectly and he definitely more than makes up for how limited his screen time is. Trust me when I say that you will not only love what they do with Vader in this movie, but you will never forget it either. It is that damn entertaining and that damn good.
Now one of the key instruments to how great Rogue One truly is can be found in the new ensemble of protagonists. Indeed while it may start with Jyn Erso, who is just a fantastic character in her own right, it also fully extends to her compatriots as well, from Cassian Andor whose commitment to being a Rebel has taken him down some extremely dark roads all the way to Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) the Imperial pilot who is defecting in hopes of some kind of repentance for what he’s seen and done. Indeed, not only are these characters wonderfully fully three-dimensional human beings, but none of them, thank God, have any direct connections to previously established heroes (read: the Skywalker clan). Also while Star Wars has notoriously, and infamously I might add, always operated in black and white morality aka the Rebels always showcasing good and the Empire showcasing evil, the Rogue One script manages to do an impressive job of finally introducing the Star Wars universe to important grey areas that emerge naturally from the reality of the subject matter. Plus in the process it is the addition of grey that effectively adds depth to not only the characters, but the stakes of their mission as well. Indeed while it can’t be said that these characters wind up undergoing extreme arcs that make them different people by the time the movie is over, each character in our ensemble does enhance the story being told and they all have vital roles to play within it….roles which subsequently I feel really further help to deepen the themes of hope and sacrifice that have always been inherent to the Star Wars saga.
Now I feel like many of you may be thinking after reading all of that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is an entirely bleak and doom and gloom affair, but it’s not. I say that because whereas audiences definitely won’t be laughing whenever the Empire is flexing its muscles (or really during any scene featuring Ben Mendelsohn’s intimidating Lt. Commander Orson Krennic if I’m going to be even more specific), the film certainly does have a sense of humor that it derives organically. Indeed although never being anything quite like the often dreaded “comic relief,” the greatest assets the film has in this organic humor category have to be Chirrut Îmwe and K-2SO not just because they deliver quippy lines, but also because their best moments really just come from their natural attitudes and interactions be it their individual contempt for authority, or their fun relationships with the other members of their team (particularly Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus and Jyn Erso, respectively). Indeed it is this levity that not only prevents the blockbuster from feeling overly dreary and doom and gloom, but also makes the heroes more endearing and also makes you root for their victory and survival that much more at the same time.
Indeed this balance is also a factor that plays very well into Rogue One’s style and action as well, as we as an audience find ourselves somehow witnessing something that is both unlike anything we’ve seen before from the franchise yet is at the same time also undeniably Star Wars. Also Gareth Edwards does such a fantastic job with his on-the-ground approach during the movie’s many bombastic and exciting action sequences that you almost feel the dirt spray on your face, and that you are there with our heroes as they find themselves experiencing the danger and consequences of the battles they find themselves embroiled in. Indeed there truly is an incredible variety established within the set pieces as well as not only do we get new settings, fighting styles and weaponry, but also from a creative aesthetic perspective we even get new kinds of Stormtroopers featured and a few new spaceships thrown into the mix for good measure. Yet perhaps the best and most important aspect is the fact that every single bit of action that we see is not only important, but it also furthers the plot in a significant way as well which subsequently all leads up to a third act featuring a final climatic Rebels vs. Empire showdown that after seeing it I feel can be described best with no other term than “absolute crystal clear perfection.”
All in all there are elements of Rogue One that do somewhat hold the film back such as a few underdeveloped plot elements, and a desire to see more not only of Saw Gerrera, who it seems had a few scenes hit the cutting room floor, but also of the relationship between Orson Krennic and Mads Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso. Yet honestly at the end of the day these are minor issues in the grand scheme of things because this movie is absolutely fantastic! Indeed if the franchise can continually pull off blockbusters with the same level of creative energy and the proper amount of reverence as Rogue One manages to do in spades and aces, then I feel that there’s every reason in the world for all of us as moviegoers to expect greatness from this franchise for years to come. Indeed for everyone out there who may have ever been even the tad iffiest in regards to Episodes 1, 2, and 3 this film may in fact be the prequel that you have been looking for. On a scale of 1-5 I give Rogue One: A Star Wars Story a solid 4 out of 5.