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Rogue One

January 28, 2017

This is long overdue, but I finally have time to share a few thoughts on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the latest Disney/Lucasfilm tentpole. Cutting to the chase, Rogue One is terrific. While the film is not completely without fault, I find that the majority of my criticisms fall in the “nitpicks from a Star Wars fan” category, and do not add up to anything that seriously hinders the experience.

rogue one star wars story poster

The beautiful one-sheet for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

Chief among my gripes, and one of the major talking points regarding the film (unfortunately), are the fully-CGI renderings of Governor Tarkin and Princess Leia (Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher circa 1977). Many have grappled with the ethics of using the likeness of the deceased Cushing (which I don’t see as an issue), and it will be interesting to see how Fisher’s character will be used in future installments after her tragic and untimely passing. My bugaboo is that the characters didn’t look great on the screen, and the distraction hardly seemed worth the trouble. Leia was the more convincing of the two, but I imagine her minimal screen time helped a bit. Tarkin, as well as Cushing himself, is iconic, and while I like the idea of him having a presence in the story, he didn’t need to be a fully-fledged character responsible for anchoring multiple scenes. The likeness was not quite good enough for that and resulted in a distraction that makes a Star Wars fan powerless to think about anything but the weirdness of seeing a major character in a modern movie played by an actor long dead. Not a movie-wrecking travesty, but a distraction nonetheless.

This serves as a natural segue into a few other pain points revolving around how Rogue One related to the canonical Star Wars episodes. [Prepare yourself for a paragraph of petty beefs followed by what I actually liked about the movie… I promise.] Darth Vader appeared in a couple of scenes. In his scene with Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), you might notice that Vader doesn’t appear quite himself. Whether the great James Earl Jones’ (now 86) iconic timbre isn’t what it used to be, or the costume wasn’t quite right (I’ve heard many diagnoses, but haven’t been able to put my finger exactly on it), the small details in this scene were bound to distract longtime fans and could have been altogether avoided without harming the story if the scene were trimmed. Jimmy Smits was a welcome sight, but did he have to come with a verbal reference (might as well have been a wink) to Princess Leia—especially when you’ve already got her lined up for a killer cameo later on? It’s just a matter of redundancy bogging down the proceedings when subtext would suffice. There are other pocks, but I’m going to stop now before I forget that I actually really liked the movie a lot.

Speaking of Krennic, Ben Mendelsohn was one of many highlights in what has to be one of the best genre movie casts in recent memory. Mendelsohn, a delightful character actor who has made a name for himself in recent years playing all manner of scumbag-types, shines in his all-too-few moments as Director Krennic, the well-dressed (and caped!) Imperial officer overseeing the completion of the Death Star. The role could have been juicier, but a little Mendelsohn is always going to be better than no Mendelsohn.

As for the lead role of Jyn Erso, Felicity Jones takes another underwritten part and makes the best of it. Even if, story-wise, Rogue One seems to skip the part where Jyn transitions from a bratty malcontent into a believable rebel leader, Jones smoothes things over a bit with her suitably heroic performance.

The largely international cast also includes Mads Mikkelson (Casino Royale and TV’s Hannibal), Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien), Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler), and Donnie Yen (Yip Man). Rogue One, and Donnie Yen in particular, deserves credit for making a blind Zatoichi-inspired character pay off as meaningfully as he did without coming off corny. The cast list certainly goes on, but there’s not a weak link on it.

Alan Tudyk can’t be forgotten either for voicing K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid, who was crushing one-liners left and right when he wasn’t crushing stormtroopers.

Rogue One is an immediate prequel to the original Star Wars (Episode IV – A New Hope, for completists). It chronicles the horror and sacrifice of the mission to steal the Death Star plans. The events of Rogue One are alluded to in the opening text crawl from the 1977 movie:

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.

Though “many Bothans” were not featured in Rogue One, the events of the latest Star Wars film end almost exactly where the original begin. More so than any of the other installments, Rogue One plays like a war movie. It features heroic characters (but not actual heroes per se) risking their lives for a greater cause in the face of very long odds. Once the story really gets rolling, and Rogue One fully embraces its identity as a war film, it soars on rising action and poignant drama.

Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) really knows how to capture hectic battle scenes and grand-scale action on film. Whether it’s a shot of the Death Star looming just over the horizon of a doomed planet, or a brutal ground assault on the planet Scarif, or Vader’s instantly iconic death romp toward the end, the action features uncommon gravitas. Gorgeous to look at from the opening scene, Rogue One is the most impressively lensed Star Wars to date.

While Rogue One clearly looked the part, the sense of sacrifice packs an emotional wallop. One of the movie’s greatest successes is conveying the depth of sacrifice inherent in any war. In doing so, it ascribes even greater meaning and urgency on the events of the original trilogy, which is no small feat.

Rogue One‘s production had hiccups. The backpedaling from the first (and best) trailer, the news of rewrites and re-shoots deep into production seem to correlate to some of the issues with the final product. Just how much was changed and how much of the final product are owed to Tony Gilroy rather than Edwards remains to be seen, and we may never really find out.

Regardless of some unevenness in its first half, Rogue One is ultimately a strong foray into non-episodic storytelling for the franchise. Despite clinging to its original trilogy ties, the willingness to include Tarkin and Young Leia does give upcoming Star Wars anthology films a sense of unpredictability. Sure, we know movies about Han Solo and are likely on their way, but beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be anything off-limits in the Star Wars universe. I consider that exciting. Rogue One is a good Star Wars movie and a borderline-great war movie. It features trademarked movie magic, while hinting that Star Wars can satisfy kids and mature fans alike.

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