It finally happened. The Star Wars franchise released its first ever, non-chapter offshoot movie, the first in a planned anthology series. In this day and age, where all the studios in Hollywood now follow Marvel’s lead by trying to build their own lucrative franchises complete with interlocking movies, Lucasfilm have followed up the wildly successful Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), which is essentially a prequel to Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). If you recall, at the beginning of that movie, Princess Leia gave R2-D2 the stolen plans to the Death Star in the hopes that Obi-Wan Kenobi would get and take them to the Rebellion. Rogue One chronicles how these plans were stolen in the first place. Is this movie a simple cash-grab and a really expensive piece of fan fiction or does it stand on its own merits that justify its existence?
As a child, Jyn Erso witnessed her mother (Valene Kane) killed on orders from Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), an Imperial Military officer that “persuades” her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), to continue his work on the Death Star, a massive space station capable of destroying entire planets. Jyn (Felicity Jones) grows up with an understandable hatred for the Empire. This makes her an obvious recruit for the Rebellion but initially she’s not interested, even after they rescue her from an Imperial prison.
They soon offer her a deal: accompany intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to a planet called Jedha where renegade Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is holding a captive Imperial cargo pilot by the name of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) sent by Jyn’s father. Andor assembles a rag-tag group to undertake a mission with impossible odds a la The Dirty Dozen (1967), among them Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior, and his best friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a Rebel warrior and mercenary. They are introduced in an impressively staged sequence where Imwe single-handedly takes out a platoon of Imperial Stormtroopers with only a staff.
Right from the get-go, Rogue One establishes a decidedly dark tone with the murder of Jyn’s mother and then the tense mood on the Imperial-occupied Jedha that boils over when Saw’s warriors attack an Imperial blockade in a busy city area. Most significantly, there’s the apocalyptic image of a Jedha city obliterated by a test blast from the Death Star. This is a war movie with plenty of casualties and a grim tone to match. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of levity, like the give and take between Imwe and Malbus (these guys need their own movie), and the sarcastic retorts from K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial enforcer droid that has been reprogrammed by Andor.
The cast is uniformly excellent with Felicity Jones and Diego Luna as particularly memorable leads. Fresh from her Academy Award nominated turn in The Theory of Everything (2014), she shows an impressive versatility as a rugged fighter but with a touching vulnerability when it comes to her father. Jyn joins the ranks of strong female characters in the Star Wars universe. Luna matches her as the Rebellion fighter with a checkered past that is only hinted at but it clearly motivates his actions. The actor does an excellent job at conveying this in his performance.
Other notable performances include veteran martial artist Donnie Yen as a blind, quasi Jedi and Alan Tudyk as a pessimistic droid. The former instills the movie with tantalizing references to the Force while the latter makes C3P0 seem positively cheerful in comparison. Character actor extraordinaire Ben Mendelsohn is quite strong as the Imperial officer in charge of the Death Star and gets some meaty scenes involving his character navigating the treacherous waters of Imperial politics that provide fascinating insight into the bureaucratic machinations of the Empire.
The attention to period detail is fantastic as the uniforms for both Rebels and the Empire are faithfully recreated as are their various vehicles, from X-Wings to Star Destroyers while also incorporating ones we haven’t seen before. This ensures that Rogue One fits seamlessly with the Original Trilogy movies. This isn’t done as merely an exercise in nostalgia – although, fans of those movies will have fun spotting the occasional Easter egg here and there, but actually incorporated into the very fabric of the story.
My good friend and fellow writer Noah Chinn argued in his review for Rogue One that there is a “tonal mismatch” that creates a jarring effect when compared to the rest of franchise. He points out that in the other movies there was always a glimmer hope. Even with its darkest installment, Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), there was hope at the end – not so much with Rogue One, which ends on a nihilistic bummer. I didn’t have a problem with this – as an adult, which is Noah’s point. But what if I saw it as a child? Would have it emotionally scarred me? That being said, at the risk of sounding like an old fart, kids these days are coddled too much and the ending of Rogue One teaches them the power of self-sacrifice, of giving everything you have for something you believe in. Judging by the box office receipts of this movie, audiences don’t seem to have a problem with the dark tone of the movie either. Perhaps Rogue One is simply reflecting the times in which we live in and people are responding to it.
It is a testimony to how involved I became in these characters and their story, even though I ultimately know what happens – the Death Star is destroyed – I didn’t know what happened to the characters I had never seen before, that I became invested in their respective fates. Rogue One is a much darker, dare I say, nihilistic movie than any of the other ones in the Star Wars franchise. It is also one of the best. I can’t imagine it being made under Lucas’ watch, which may upset purists, but now freed of his control it has allowed the new brain-trust to make bold moves and if this movie is any indication of what is in store for future standalone movies, fans are in for a real treat.