Just when all hope was lost, the force has awakened this time. After the disappointingly stale installment last year, I did not have high hopes for Rogue One. To my surprise, the first standalone Star Wars franchise film exceeded expectations. Although the public is accustomed to Star Wars films coming in threes, Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Studios took a risk in creating an original single story to successfully setup A New Hope. Unlike when the force tried to awaken last year, THIS feels like a new Star Wars film. With twenty-some-odd years to fill between Revenge of the Sith and the original movie, how was one film going to do it? Focus on what was ultimately important. Not that the development of the Empire would be uninteresting, but the white elephant in the room was “how did the rebels get the plans that setup the events at the beginning of A New Hope“? And that is precisely what director Gareth Edwards did, and it paid off! Rogue One is as exciting as the original film; and furthermore, is built upon a solid plot that is mostly new with a little nostalgia and Easter Eggs (visual references to A New Hope) in the form of locations, props, shots/frames, and familiar featured characters and a surprising cameo. One of the elements that plagued Episode VII was the simple fact that it was little more than a remix and mashup of everything that had been done before, including main plot points, subplots, and predictable behavior. Rogue One feels fresh and new. Yes, there are obviously appearances and references to characters and settings from A New Hope, but that is to be expected since this film ends where the original film begins. Thematically darker than the original film but not as dark as Empire Strikes Back, this installment strikes a balance in the force that makes it interesting to watch. We all know that the rebels get the plans in the end, but this film makes the adventure worth watching as it unfolds.
With the old republic in ruins and the senate all but disbanded, the Galactic Empire has its eyes set on a feat of engineering never seen before. But they need to attach the right scientific talent in order to create that which would become known as the Death Star. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a brilliant scientist and former Imperial officer, devoted husband, and loving father. Director Krennic, head of the secret Death Star project, arrives at Erso’s home to forcibly recruit him to head up the science and engineering divisions. When recruitment does not go as planned, Erso is separated from his family and taken away. Escaping to the caves, his daughter evades capture. Many years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) finds herself a criminal and angry that her father never came back for her. When an Imperial pilot allegedly defects and claims to have a message from Galen for the Rebel Alliance, Jyn is recruited by the rebels to lead them to a former rebel turned rogue and ultimately to her father. With Captain Cassian Adnor (Diego Luna) at the helm and lead of the small band of rebels accompanying Jyn to her father, they uncover a secret that thousands will die for in order to attempt to make things right in the galaxy. All the while, they have no idea that this clandestine mission will spark events that they could have never imagined.
Already, this film seems to have sparked arguments among fans of the franchise and those who enjoy them but may not be fanboys. Even this morning, I noticed many comments on social media that commented on the film positively or negatively. Interestingly, at first glance, it seems as those who liked Episode VII: The Force Awakens did not like Rogue One, and those–like me and the friends I went with last night–who thought The Force Awakens was garbage but found Rogue One to be exciting, dynamic, and refreshing. Of course, there are plenty of people who like both films released under the Disney banner, either because the Big D can’t possibly do anything wrong or because they are true fans for better or worse of the nearly forty-year-old franchise and staple in the future fantasy genre (notice I did not say science-fiction–no real science here). At this point, I am unsure why those who liked last year’s film may not have liked this weekend’s installment; however, it appears to be clear from multiple comments and reviews that the reason why those who did not like Episode VII enjoyed Rogue One is the newness of a film that embodies the spirit of the original but provides audiences with a new adventure that connects well without redundancy. One of the reasons for the success of the original film–aside from a great cast–is the focus on the drama between characters and camps. There is the drama between Rebels and the Empire but also drama within the camps themselves. Rogue One borrows from A New Hope in that the focus is more on the drama than resting its laurels on the technical elements. Not that this film lacks in the technical category. Rogue One comes complete with great direction, color grading, cinematography, and impressive editing (especially with some rather surprising CGI that will definitely cause you to do a double take utter delight).
For all that this installment did well, the beginning of the film following the prologue was dreadfully ill-conceived and mostly unnecessary. Unlike all the other Star Wars films, this one did not open with the trademark scrolling written prologue offering exposition to setup the movie. Instead, after the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” the film cuts to the opening scene of Krennic recruiting Galen. Following the prologue and rather PowerPoint-looking Rogue One title card, is a rapid, incoherent, and confusing sequence of montages. Honestly, I am still unsure why that whole sequence was necessary. Between the PowerPointy title card and this sequence of montages, I did not have hope for the film at all. Obviously, I ended up enjoying it immensely, but I look back and feel strongly that it could have been left out. The settings/planets that were depicted did not play into the plot at any level of significance. Felt like filler. Thankfully, the scenes following the prologue are but a small portion of the film and the film really begins to take off after Captain Cassian and his team rescue Jyn from a prison transport vehicle. After Jyn’s rescue covert operation, the rest of the film is nicely paced and developed. Other than knowing the ending, the majority of the film was unpredictable. Unpredictable in that you know the direction it’s going and ultimately what’s going to happen but you don’t know HOW it all happens and works together to setup A New Hope.
Just the right amount of nostalgia and Easter Eggs. For those who are fans of or simply familiar with the movies, there are cameos, references, and shots taken from the chronologically preceding films (mostly A New Hope). Just enough nods to and direct connections to provide the audience with a film that IS as much a part of the Star Wars saga as the official Star Wars cannon. It’s no surprise that the Death Star is a big part of Rogue One, Senator Mon Mothma is seen leading the rebels, Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) makes several brief appearances, and a couple other nostalgic cameos; but there are some characters who are included in the diegesis of this film who will delight old and new fans alike–one in particular that will incite an eruption of cheers! Beyond the human characters, there are other appearances by iconic ships and war machines that aid in cementing this story in with the rest of the franchise. While the film contains some lighthearted, witty dialog between the core group of principle and supporting characters, the film also contains some dark moments. Personally, I think the film should have been a little darker since it sets up the installment all about hope reborn; but, the atrocities of war are definitely not hidden from the audience and events transpire that are atypical of future fantasy films between heroes and villains. In a manner of speaking, and as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the film’s diegesis strikes a balance in the force in terms of the light and dark content.
Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is an exciting narrative that successfully sets up the film that started it all. If you’re a fan of the original trilogy but did not enjoy Episode VII, you will most likely enjoy this installment. If you are a fan of the original trilogy and liked Episode VII, then there is moderate chance that you may not like this story. It will be interesting to see how this film plays out amongst mild, moderate, and hard core Star Wars fans from both the Disney and Fox camps. I had my doubts of Disney taking the reigns of the franchise after last year; but this film gives me a new hope that Disney may be able to successfully navigate the rest of the franchise.