death star

Rogue One

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, War Director: Gareth Edwards

Rogue One takes the “war” in Star Wars seriously. This is a war film, set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Grim and gritty, with a lived-in feel to its various other-worldly locations, Rogue One is an action-packed addition to the Star Wars canon. It may be the best suicide squad movie of 2016.

This Star Wars story tells the tale of the valiant Rebel Alliance forces who sacrificed their lives stealing the plans for the Empire’s Death Star, plans which allowed Luke Skywalker and Co. to blow it up in the original 1977 film. We learn who created the weapon for the Death Star, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), and his reluctance to serve the Galactic Empire. We learn how the space station’s weakness was engineered by Galen, a subversive act for the sake of the Alliance. We learn about his daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), raised by criminals and rebels in the absence of her parents, herself becoming a loner and a lawbreaker (though we are never made privy to her actual crimes). All this is set in the context of battle sequence after battle sequence, much of it with the tone and tenor of a WWII film. From a dirty desert to rained-out crags to a beach invasion, one can recall similar sequences from Saving Private Ryan or The Bridge on the River Kwai. There are also plenty of visual nods to the original Star Wars trilogy. Scene after scene in Rogue One mimic small moments from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi with the dedication of fan fiction. Oh, there’s Ponda Baba, from the cantina in Mos Eisley! Oh, there’s R2-D2 and C-3PO in a cameo! That shot from Yavin 4 is *just* like the original film! The Star Wars nerds (like me) will find these delightful, if perhaps a bit on the nose.

Yet unlike last year’s The Force Awakens, this is not a remake of an earlier film. If anything, Rogue One marks a unique and original addition to the Star Wars universe. First, its diverse team of rebels is made up of some remarkable actors. Felicity Jones is solid as Jyn (though she’s no Rey), and others like Diego Luna as rebel leader Captain Cassian Andor and Riz Ahmed as a defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook play their roles well, though their personalities are somewhat forgettable. It’s Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang which are the most memorable as a blind Force-sensitive prophet and his gun-toting companion, respectively. I don’t even remember their character’s names, but I do remember their friendship, as well as the remarkable action set pieces where they play key roles. There’s the sarcastic droid K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk with a droll snark that serves as comedic relief in an otherwise overly-serious film. There’s Ben Mendelsohn being a villain, because it’s Ben Mendelsohn. All of the performances are competent; none could be considered especially compelling. This isn’t a problem with the actors–this cast is incredible!–but rather the script and direction, which does its best to be a unique addition to the canon while remaining orthodox in its story beats and rhythms. Filmmaker Gareth Edwards, whose previous films Monsters and Godzilla felt fresh and ambitious, seems to be attempting his style within the Star Wars universe, a universe which likely comes with a lot of controlling voices and expectations. He is Galen Erso building the machine for the Empire (Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm), doing his best to get his own thumbprint on the final product.

The battle sequences in Rogue One are far more intense and drawn out than in any previous Star Wars installment. There are space battles with fighters; there are gun battles with Storm Troopers; there are hand-to-hand combat moments in the streets of an alien city. Sitting next to me in the theater was a mom and two young girls, likely ages 8 or 9. The girls were often turning away from the battles on screen; when one main character was eventually killed, a girl asked her mom, “Is he dead?” with a sense of genuine trepidation. Star Wars has always had its Dark Side; it’s just never felt this openly aggressive before. There was a light-heartedness to the other films, especially George Lucas’ campiness and humor in Episodes I-III. The humor here is a dejected, sarcastic droid noting the likelihood of the rebels’ impending deaths. Heh, heh…?

Rogue One fosters a sense of desperation even as it continually tries to muster up hope. One gets the sense of what the Rebels are truly up against in confronting the evils of the Empire. Cassian tells Jyn that the group of soldiers he’s recruited for their rebellious attack–they are rebels after all–have each done morally questionable things for the sake of the Alliance. Spies, smugglers, assassins: these don’t feel like the good guys. Cassian himself kills an acquaintance early on in order to make his escape from Storm Troopers easier, a decision which feels like it’s decidedly on the Dark Side of the Force. Han Solo was a scoundrel, but he was a lovable scoundrel, even if he did shoot Greedo first. Cassian’s attack feels different; if Han’s could be considered self-defense against an armed bounty hunter, Cassian shoots a frightened, crippled man in the back. It’s a deplorable move, and Cassian never really redeems himself; even when he chooses to not kill a particular character in a key moment, he doesn’t account for the error in moral judgment, nor does he apologize or own up to his sins. If you wanted rogues, well…here they are. Anything for the sake of the Rebel Alliance, right? ….Right? Are we ready for a morally murky Star Wars, one where the good guys aren’t always good and the bad guys might actually be decent people, under different circumstances?  Rogue One does maintain that experiencing hope may also entail immense suffering, an observation which rings true, and one I can get behind. Yet I’m not sure Rogue One is a film I need to revisit any time soon. War and death can do that that to a person–one doesn’t desire to go back for a second look.

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