REVIEW: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Theatrical Release Poster - Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Theatrical Release Poster – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The following is a review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Directed by Gareth Edwards.

In 2015, J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens proudly announced that the good Star Wars was finally back. Gone are the days of the disappointing and operatic George Lucas prequels. With The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm proved that the future of the Star Wars saga – the episodes – were in good hands. But what about the untold stories of the prequels? To answer several unanswered questions Lucasfilm will give us these spin-off films that they call ‘Star Wars stories.’

Rogue One is the very first of these ‘stories’ and it comes from the mind of John Knoll – the visual effects supervisor of such films as The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. It takes place between Episode III and Episode IV and is designed to begin to fill in the gap between the two George Lucas trilogies. Here we have a film that essentially tries to explain the opening crawl from 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in greater detail.

Rogue One isn’t just the first ‘Star Wars story,’ it is also the very first of these major blockbusters to be without an opening crawl. This, I feel, is extremely important to mention in a review as I don’t believe Lucasfilm and Disney have done a great job of informing casual Star Wars fans of the film. This isn’t Episode VIII. BB-8 isn’t in this one.

This is a war movie unlike anything else you’ve seen in the Star Wars series of films. This is about the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. It highlights elements of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance that haven’t been detailed in previous films. The Rebel Alliance isn’t just good, and there are good people working for the Empire.

I was a little bit worried about this film, and it was pretty difficult not to be. It wasn’t because of the director – Gareth Edwards – whose previous blockbuster film – Godzilla – wasn’t my cup of tea. I had a lot of faith in the director’s ability to make a great Star Wars film based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta and a screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz. But while news of reshoots don’t normally scare me away from a film, it was hard not to notice the rumored problems with the film. I, honestly, grew tired of it all. Thankfully, I am happy with the final product here. I really like Rogue One.

Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) – the daughter of a respected scientist who has been forced to work for the Empire (Galen Erso, played by Mads Mikkelsen) – after the Rebel Alliance breaks her out of a cell. Jyn is a troublemaker and she’s not interested in working for the Empire or the Rebel Alliance at first, but when she learns the truth about her father’s whereabouts she decides to lead a mission to retrieve the plans to the dreaded Death Star.

In general, I believe it was a huge mistake not to include opening crawls in spin-off films, but Rogue One proves my point: there’s a lot to explain in the first act, and an opening crawl would’ve made it easier for audiences to understand where and when it takes place, what characters we’re following, and it would’ve just been nice to have an opening crawl – something that has become a major part of the Star Wars brand – to reintroduce us to the days of Darth Vader and Mon Mothma.

You don’t get an opening crawl in Rogue One, but you still get the ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ line but it leads us straight into the opening scene. There is a title screen but it doesn’t appear on sceen until after the conclusion of an opening scene that introduces us to the Erso family, and the title card itself was very underwhelming and unimpressive compared to the awesome classic and grandiose opening of a regular Star Wars saga episode.

Unlike all of the saga episodes that have been made at the time of writing, Rogue One‘s musical score wasn’t composed by the legendary John Williams. Originally, Alexandre Desplat was supposed to compose the score, but he had to suddenly drop out, apparently, due to the reshoots changing the post-production schedule.

Michael Giacchino replaced Desplat, but he supposedly didn’t have a long time to finish the musical score. I think that might’ve impacted what he ultimately adds to the film, but I think his musical score was fine. There isn’t a new song that you’re going to hum as you walk out of the theater, and he doesn’t overuse the classic themes.

Now, let’s continue to talk about some of my issues with Rogue One. Obviously, the thing I’m most upset about is the lack of an opening crawl, but I have other issues with the film. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the film rushes from location to location in the first act. I really feel like I needed some of these scenes to breathe a little bit more, if that makes any sense. I think the film would’ve worked a little bit better in the first act if it didn’t hop around as much as it does.

While I enjoy both of the first acts of the film, I do think they’re both somewhat problematic. I do think that the film suffers from pacing issues, but, as I’ll get to a little bit later, I think that the third and final act saves the film somewhat and makes Rogue One a much more memorable experience to go through.

I think the one element of the film that most people will be criticizing is the new CG-recreation of two characters that play important parts in the film universe at the time the film takes place. It’s tough to really discuss these characters without going into spoilers, but I will say, at least, one of these CG characters had to be in the film. You’ll know exactly what characters I’m talking about when you see the film (characters that have appeared in the film series before), and hopefully their new CG-look won’t bother you too much.

I also think there are some general problems with the central characters here. One of the greatest strengths of 2015’s The Force Awakens was the strength of the new characters. People love Rey, Finn, Poe, and while people hate Kylo for what he did in that film, people like that character a lot. However, I don’t know if you’ll truly love a new character that is introduced in this film.

I think the Erso family is really interesting and cool. I think Felicity Jones does a really good job with Jyn, and I loved Mads Mikkelsen in Rogue One too. While I like Diego Luna, I didn’t love Cassian Andor, even though I do think his character adds a lot to our understanding of the Rebel Alliance. Even some of the characters that I think work really well – like Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus – don’t get a lot of backstory here. We don’t learn enough about them here. Their stories are destined to be told in comic books and novels.

I liked what Ben Mendelsohn was doing with his character. Mendelsohn’s Krennic isn’t particularly memorable, but I think he’s an interesting addition to the universe because of the way he interacts with characters that fans already know and love. Saw Gerrera, which wasn’t a completely new character to the universe, is played by Forest Whitaker here, and I don’t think he does a good job – I don’t know what accent he’s doing, but it didn’t work for me. The standout characters that aren’t from other films are the droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe, and the two prominent Erso’s – Felicity Jones’ Jyn and Mads Mikkelsen’s Galen.

And that brings me to what I really loved about the film, and at the top of my list of positives is the fact that Disney took a risk here. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a really dark film. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to watch, but sometimes blockbuster films can be a little bit too jokey. There are jokes in Rogue One, but the jokes aren’t what you’ll remember about this film.

You’ll remember that odd mix of hope and dread that the film ends with. You’ll also remember the thrilling third act that includes some of the most exciting action and war scenes in the entire franchise. A great space battle, heartstopping action on the ground, and a mission that becomes more and more dangerous for our rebels as every second goes by.

Now, if you’ve been watching the trailers or tv-spots for Rogue One, then you probably noticed that one of the most iconic movie villains makes an appearance. Darth Vader is in Rogue One. However, I feel that I need to warn you or – at the very least – I feel like you should know what to expect. Darth Vader isn’t in this film for a very long time. Don’t expect to see him a lot. However, when you do see the Dark Lord of the Sith, you get some really memorable, breathtaking and haunting scenes. Those are the scenes that I was thinking about as I walked out of the movie theater.

One of the things that I wanted this film to try to do was to improve the experience of watching the original trilogy. I didn’t expect the film to manage to do it, but I actually think A New Hope is improved by the information given in Rogue One. It fixes a major problem that most people have with A New Hope and adds a lot of meaning to your understanding of the Rebel Alliance. Similarly, I also think that this makes not just the Empire, but also Darth Vader a lot more terrifying.

There are a lot of easter eggs in Rogue One, and while there were times when I thought some fan-service moments were a bit too obvious and overplayed, there are so many other moments when I was grinning from ear to ear because of these references to the classic original trilogy that I love so much.

I know people want this question answered: is Rogue One better than The Force Awakens? Honestly, I don’t believe so. I know a lot of people believe The Force Awakens is dangerously overfamiliar, but I do think that film is a better film than what we have here, even though I really like Rogue One.

It is impossible for me to not review this film as a fan. Maybe it would be easier for me with another franchise, but Star Wars means a lot to me – more than it does to a lot of people, I’d imagine – so, in the end, I’m going to give this film a higher score than I imagine a casual fan would give it. Keep that in mind. However, I do believe I’ve managed to explain the problems that I have with this film, even though those issues won’t be as problematic for me as they might be for others.

Should a film be ‘just for the fans?’ No, definitely not. I don’t believe so. But Star Wars is such a big part of western popular culture that I hope most audiences will understand and let themselves get caught up in the lovely world of Star Wars. But I really don’t think this is a great starting point for newcomers to the franchise. I imagine that they would be lost here.

For better or worse, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is for the die-hard fans. The people that rewatch their favorite Star Wars film every year – or every film multiple times every year. The fans that enjoy learning about the universe the Jedi inhabit, even when there are no Jedi present to keep them entertained.

8 out of 10

 – I’m Jeffrey Rex

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4 comments

  1. Finally, someone else who thought the easter eggs were a little much (it didn’t help I was sitting next to a superfan who kept whispering the characters’ names out loud).
    I agree that there were pacing issues, and the first act was basically a tour of multiple locations with no context. The third act was better, but not caring about the characters prevented me from really getting into the action.

    1. Yeah, I thought the shot of Ponda Baba and Evazan took way too long. With those cameos it felt like the filmmakers were holding on that shot and winking at everyone watching the film. It was fun seeing those characters, but that scene wasn’t handled well, I thought.

      There are other cameos and easter eggs that were handled much better, but yeah maybe a bit too much fan-service here.

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