Originally published on December 14, 2016. Rogue One is now available on Netflix’s instant streaming service.
Overview: A ragtag group of rebels try to steal the plans for the Empire’s newest weapon, The Death Star. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; 2016; PG-13; 133 Minutes.
Long Odds: Disney and Lucasfilm, much like the characters in the newest Star Wars film, had a huge mission. With their acquisition of the Star Wars brand, Disney announced a seemingly endless franchise with a new Star Wars movie every year for the near future. Some chapters would be continuing episodes of the original saga while others would be spin-offs. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first of these spin-offs and, in terms of the new business model, the most important item on the calendar.
One of the major complaints leveraged against The Force Awakens, the first film in the new episode series, was its on-the-nose similarity to A New Hope. And the complaint is fair, as the 2015 film and the 1977 original are very similar in narrative construct, but if studios and filmmakers were going to wash the bad taste of the prequels out of their audience’s mouths, Disney needed to show that they remembered what a good Star Wars was like. No such constraint exists for Rogue One. Instead, this movie, because of its status as a standalone and follow-up to the New Hope-beholden The Force Awakens, needed to be as different as possible to show the potential for this endless franchise and what is achievable with the spin-offs.
Old and New: In a sense, Rogue One is both familiar and wildly new. This is Star Wars without the rules and style guide that Star Wars directors usually have to follow. There are no transition wipes, opening crawl, Jedi plotline, and barely even any lightsabers. It looks like a Star Wars movie only by recognition of costumes, aliens, spaceships, and some characters. There are flashbacks and dream sequences and even little titles to tell us what planet we’re on. It is also, true to the series’ best chapters, visually outstanding. Director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was one of the most gorgeous blockbusters ever made and Edwards here extends his unparalleled ability to find a shot that is beautiful while making your jaw drop in disbelief of the scale. Star Wars has always been nice to look at but the seven movies that came before this one have also always been shot very conservatively. In Rogue One, there are at least four separate occasions where I gasped at an image on the screen, while even more times I just found myself cocking my head and watching scenes like I was in a gallery admiring a canvas on a wall.
It is also refreshing to see a literally boundless universe finally invite diversity. Even before the film started, it has been amazing to see a female lead surrounded by actors from all over the world in the film’s posters. Rogue One has been cast as a big budget release with only one white American male (an actor in a motion capture suit playing the robot). Predictably, the movie only benefits. Felicity Jones is incredible in the lead, playing a character hardened and broken by having to fight the Empire by herself. She is vastly different from The Force Awakens‘ Rey who was mostly full of child-like innocence and a thirst for adventure. Jones’ Jyn Erso is all sharp edges and a reluctance to join the fight, more akin to Han Solo than Luke Skywalker. She is a great addition to the unfortunately small canon of fantastic female characters in Star Wars movies. Donnie Yen steals the show as a sort of blind, vagabond Samurai partnered/protected by Jiang Wen. Their relationship is sketched by the two actors’ chemistry as a sort of old married couple. Riz Ahmed and Diego Luna are captivating as a new rebel and a veteran, respectively. Ahmed is full of panic and Luna all bottled up, his face confessing to the bad things the war had made him do. And Forrest Whitaker was awesome as Saw, a man broken both physically and mentally from fighting the Empire. Wearing a costume that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Immortan Joe’s closet, Whitaker wheezes and stares his way through the movie, seemingly always two seconds away from losing it completely.
War: But exceptional casting is only one way in which Rogue One proves to be a different kind of war film than what we’ve come to expect from the Star Wars franchise. Historically, these movies have followed more in the tradition of adventure serials and war movies like Battle of Britain or The Dam Busters. Rogue One is more akin to Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, or Saving Private Ryan. Where Episodes I-VII have always been more of a straight up fight between two huge opposing forces, Rogue One is clandestine, behind enemy lines stuff . While there have been some covert individual storylines in Star Wars, Rogue One is like if the Endor scenes in Return of the Jedi were longer, had no Ewoks, and a much higher death toll.
Rogue One treats the war as a war. There are stakes, death, and a cost to pay. Heroic characters do horrendous things for their rebellion and the movie shows the toll of spending a life fighting an enemy that doesn’t seem to ever get closer to being defeated. Rogue One is a movie that positions its heroes in the roles of insurgents committing acts of terrorism for the greater good. It shows how rebellions can be made up of people with good intentions but also hard liners who want a good fight. It shows that a people oppressed need to fight back if they want to be free (a message made all the more powerful in contemporary terms when delivered with the aforementioned diverse cast).
The Future: Rogue One shows the potential for this franchise and its future. Marvel and DC may have decades of material to mine through and an ability to jump genres and themes, freeing that series to insert a period piece set in either of the Great Wars or a movie about gods or one about magic. Those money-making franchises can take sci-fi, fantasy, and action and mix them all together and see what happens. Star Wars doesn’t have that. It has a breeding stable of characters and a handful of pre-existing movies. Rogue One needed to show that the franchise has the legs to still be getting made for the unforeseeable future, and it does. This is a movie that is fun to watch, has real emotional weight, is both familiar and new, and is anchored by great performances from a terrific cast.
Overall: There has never been a Star Wars movie as beautiful as Rogue One, nor one as bloodthirsty. Removed from the adventure serials that inspired the originals, this entry owes more to Saving Private Ryan than it does to Flash Gordon. It definitely takes some time to build up momentum but once it gets to the fireworks factory it is relentlessly breathtaking and gorgeous. They say war never changes, but it looks as though Star Wars can.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures