Film Review: Rogue One – A Star Wars Story

Film review for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

It’s tough to make a good prequel.  Sure, in the age of sequels/prequels/remakes/spinoffs/adaptations it’s enticing for a studio to take a well-known property and tell the tale of “what happened before the story we all know and love”, but inherently there’s a difficulty in getting the audience to invest in the events on the screen when they already know the outcome.  When Disney obtained the rights to Lucasfilm and proclaimed that following The Force Awakens they would be making a prequel about stealing the Death Star plans and a Han Solo origin film I was skeptical.  It just felt like they were playing it safe and banking on the good will of the original trilogy.  Plus I still had a bad taste in my mouth when it came to the prequel trilogy and its attempts to explain away everything in the Star Wars universe (midi-chlorians, space politics, chosen one storyline, etc.).  Did they really need to go back to that well again?  The answer to that question is probably not, because one thing that Star Wars does incredibly well is establishing the feeling of a huge and active universe with tons happening just outside of the narrative we’re watching.  That said, I’m glad they made Rogue One because it is one of the best films of the franchise.

Rogue One is different than any other Star Wars movie to date.  This will sound incredibly cliché, but this film puts the “war” in Star Wars and takes more of a ground level look at the battle between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance.  While A New Hope opens with the Rebels making a last ditch effort to get information to “their only hope” on how to destroy a weapon in the hands of a nearly unstoppable foe, Rogue One shows the Rebels defeated, without hope, already in dire circumstances before even hearing rumors of this weapon.  The early stages of the movie are a bit slow as they introduce us to all the main characters and put the pieces into place.  Where Rogue One truly thrives is in setting the stakes, but I can’t explain why it works so well.  Everyone watching already knows they manage to steal the Death Star plans and get them to Princess Leia because she has them at the start of A New Hope.  However, witnessing how close they come to not retrieving the plans and how bleak their situation was before and even after obtaining them, the movie feels like it’s expanding upon the Star Wars mythos rather than unnecessary explanations or step-by-step recreations of things discussed in previous films (honestly, that’s the best clarification I can offer because it’s a prequel but for me it was engaging).  There’s an interesting look at heroism and courage with the main cast of characters.  When we meet Jyn Erso she’s a criminal and most of her team by the end of the film are criminals or mercenaries outside of the ranks of the Rebellion.  They don’t decide to act out of a sense of duty or to save the day, but because they are the only ones who can and if they don’t act within a brief window it could mean the end.  The film builds to an exciting third act of all-out war.  The fight takes place on multiple planes as this group races against the clock and improbable odds.  Call it what you will – a war movie, heist movie, sci-fi actioner – but climactic battle on Scarif is fantastic.  If nothing else the last five minutes are worth the price of admission.

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One item that needs to be addressed is the Rogue One creative team’s decision to utilize CGI to recreate General Tarkin and Princess Leia circa 1977.  Online you can find plenty of debates arguing the ethics of using physical representations of an actor who has passed and a fear that this could be the start of actors themselves being replaced.  First of all, while Trakin and Leia looked good it was still noticeable that they weren’t the actual actors on screen.  Secondly, the minds behind Rogue One have stated that they likely won’t continue the practice of CGI recreations of original trilogy characters (as the story dictates) because of how expensive it was.  Straight to the point, it didn’t bother me.  The inclusion of Tarkin and Leia made sense within the context of the film and did not feel like fan service or a shameless cash grab by showing characters that could potentially be used in marketing.  Tarkin was intricately connected to the first Death Star so there was no way of portraying the Empire’s participation in these events without including him.  While on the topic of fan favorites being added to Rogue One, I loved the limited use of Darth Vader.  He could possibly be cinema’s greatest villain so I’m sure there was a temptation to shoehorn him into each and every frame.  Instead they kept him to essentially two scenes (one ridiculously epic sequence that I won’t ruin for you) and cemented his legacy as an absolute beast.

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The acting was solid across the board with plenty of nice additions to the massive Star Wars cast of characters.  The standouts that I would love to see appear in other Star Wars related media were Saw Gerrera (who obviously does make appearances in the animated series) and Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe.  I wanted to love Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso because of her fine work in other movies like Theory of Everything, but while doing an adequate job her character wasn’t particularly memorable.  Decades from now people won’t be talking about any of these characters with the same adoration as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader or even Rey, Finn or Poe, but they were all fleshed out and relatable characters that were engaging throughout the runtime.  By the time the climactic third act all-out war broke out, I cared deeply about their fate and what they were fighting for.  As for the score, John Williams’ absence was felt in this movie.  There were multiple times where there were hints of themes used in the original trilogy and then they veered away into something different that couldn’t hold a candle to the original’s score.  I get that they wanted to make Rogue One its own thing, but weaving the original trilogy’s music in here and there would have been fitting.

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If you’re reading this review you are either checking whether my opinion of the movie aligns with yours or you’re trying to gauge whether or not to see this movie.  If you hate sci-fi and despise Star Wars this movie won’t change your mind.  What the movie does well is making the film stand apart from the seven saga films.  Lucasfilm is planning to come out with one Star Wars movie per year til the end of time and there’s no way these movies will continue to be profitable, despite the brand recognition, if they were all the same (and while I liked The Force Awakens quite a bit, it felt like they were remaking A New Hope).  Rogue One crossed over into another genre and felt more like a war movie than strictly being a sci-fi action film.  So if you’re searching to a different feel in a Star Wars movie this is right up your alley, but if you’re looking for a movie that expands upon the vast Star wars universe (hinted at in the films and touched on in the various books, comics, games, cartoons, etc.) then you may be disappointed.  That will come one day, but for now Lucasfilm is playing it safe with a movie intrinsically tied to the original trilogy.

In short, I liked Rogue One much more than I expected to when I first heard it announced.  Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope are still easily entrenched as my favorites in the series, but I find myself wrestling with whether I enjoyed The Force Awakens or this entry more.  My one sentence review: Rogue One is a rare case of being a prequel that works, creating characters you’ll care about in an engaging, and at times slow, story bolstered by a riveting action-packed third act.  The movie successfully takes a small step away from the main saga and sets the stage for the many standalone features to come.  Share your thoughts on Rogue One in the discussion board below.

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