It is understandable to approach Rogue One – the Star Wars saga’s first stand-alone adventure – with a touch of trepidation. Massive experiments in narrative time-bending have never been this series’ strong point. I must admit that, up until I saw the movie, I had been predicting that it would be a stem-to-stern appetizer, a movie whose only function was to satiate Star Wars fans hungry for next year’s Episode VIII. I feared that in rewinding the clock to tell the story of the events that led directly into Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope we might be in for a lot of fan gratification without much meat on the bone. I am excited to report that this isn’t the case. This is not only an exciting entry in the Star Wars saga but one that is so well constructed that it gives a new and much deeper poignancy to the events that are to come.
The most unexpected element to Rogue One is that the filmmakers recognize that the key to George Lucas’ world is that you can always sense that millions of stories exist just off-screen. His is a universe so rich and so full and so lived-in that you get the feeling that every character, even those lurking on the sides of the screen, are going somewhere to do something. Everything wandering in and out of the frame from the humans to the creatures to the technology to the terrain seemed to have been thought about and considered in great detail. His universe was always in motion and you always had the feeling that you wanted to sink your teeth into those areas that the movies couldn’t explore.
Teetering now on the edge of its 40th anniversary, Star Wars exudes a universe that is as familiar to us as the letters in our own name. If you were lucky enough to have been a kid when George Lucas’ original trilogy was new then you probably spent your Sunday afternoons seated on the floor of your bedroom pushing around small plastic versions of Star Wars heroes and villains using your imagination to pick up and expand Lucas’ grand universe where his movies left off (I can assure you that describes at least one skinny, spectacled kid in north-eastern Ohio.) We would like to imagine that those kids also included director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz. They know this world, they understand it with intimacy. Best of all, they respect it. They understand the story that is before them. Their story is so well written that it plugs up holes in A New Hope that have lingered for decades – like how the Imperial engineers overlooked a small thermal exhaust port in The Death Star that could destroy it. Also, why and how Leia managed to get her hands on the technical readouts of The Death Star in the first place and how and why she came to call on Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Rogue One (the words “A Star Wars Story” are nowhere on the screen) is basically a heist movie, all about how a rag-tag group of misfits were able to steal the The Death Star plans so the Rebellion could find a weakness and exploit it. Yet, it never pulls back on letting us know what the stakes are. The Empire in this movie is seen as an all-consuming galactic nightmare, a massive military regime with the power to control and enslave an entire civilization just by force of will – and this is before Vader is put in command. The Empire knows how to show its muscle and the timeline here begins at a moment when their new super weapon is still thought to be only a rumor. That fantasy is crushed the first time that The Death Star is used to strike at a city from space and we clearly understand what that means for the rest of the galaxy. Time is of the essence here. One of the values of this film is that its special effects are able to take it places that the original films could not go. In a horrifying scene, we get to see what the Death Star’s laser does to a large desert city – we see the ground pulled up and torn apart in ways we didn’t see with the destruction of Alderaan.
The setting owes everything to Star Wars but the story owes its nuts and bolts to all those great World War II mission movies like The Dirty Dozen and The Bridge on the River Kwai and especially The Guns of Navarone (another film about the need to destroy an enemy super weapon.) These are desperate times, when the Empire has taken control and plunged the galaxy in darkness. When Obi-Wan called this “The Dark Times” he wasn’t kidding. We can feel the boot of the Empire pressing down on even the most mundane aspects of day-to-day life. Those who fear the regime hovel in corners and shanty towns and outposts where they eek out a living in poverty. The Jedi are all but extinct and those who worship The Force are mired in the remnants of a hokey religion that breeds far-flung cults of little significance.
The central figure of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (played by a straight-faced Felicity Jones) whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was a noted Imperial Engineer who was heavily involved in the construction of The Death Star until he jumped ship and went into hiding. An incident in Jyn’s childhood left her homeless so she was adopted and raised under the care of no-nonsense revolutionary and Clone War veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) whose broken body is kept alive by the same technology that keeps Darth Vader breathing.
Through events too vast and complicated to explain here, Jyn gets herself hooked up with a band of revolutionaries: A Rebel assassin named Cassian (Diego Luna), a blind swordsman named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); A gun-toting cynic name Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen); A recently defected Imperial pilot called Bodhi (Riz Ahmed); And the scene-stealing K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) an imperial droid who is a much more stolid and far less-reassuring version of C-3PO. They get mixed up with a Rebel Alliance that is, in truth, at war with itself. In meeting rooms, arguments wage between those who want action and those who want a strategy. The Empire has cut off and killed nearly every option that the Alliance has and so they are eventually forced to put their trust in the hands of Jyn and her crew who know about the weakness in The Death Star but are unable to prove it. Their mission is to sneak into the lion’s den, so to speak, and retrieve the plans that they can be given to the Alliance.
That explanation might make the film sound dull and familiar, but the pacing, the logic, the sense of dread and the ticking clock mentality make this story far more exciting then it probably has any reason to be. Over on the Imperial side, we see a far more organized but no less fractured union between officers. If the fractures in the Alliance are the results of desperation, then the fractures in the Imperial hierarchy is the result of overbearing egos. The major conflict comes between the imperious Grand Moff Tarkin (played by a computerized reconstruction of Peter Cushing that is just weird) and Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military. He’s a bitter snort who has a connection to Jyn’s past that makes her mission into an act of revenge.
The connections between the new characters are probably the film’s weak point, but its hard to lay that on a movie since their mission doesn’t leave much time for quiet introspection. We feel the weight of the world pressing down on each of their shoulders, the movie is so busy that its hard to get a sense of how they connect with one another. The mystery of these characters is guessing their fate. Since this is a stand-alone, it’s hard to guess who will live and who will die. The one new character that I was able to connect with was Chirrut, the blind swordsman. He’s a man of faith who marches into battle chanting to himself, “I am with the Force, the Force is with me” identifying him as a holy man cementing the fragmented pieces of his fallen faith. He has a one-liner during capture by Stormtroopers that brings down the house.
While the new characters leave something to be desired, there is a tickle in revisiting the old and the familiar. Yes, Darth Vader has a minor supporting role but its not insignificant. We get the giddy joy of once again hearing the mechanized voice of James Earl Jones and finally FINALLY seeing Vader fight at the top of his power, it’s a thrill. More on this I will not say. What I can say is that the movie is littered with in-jokes, cameos and tiny asides that are forecasts of things to come, yet they don’t get in the way. They don’t quake the story like some of George Lucas’ alterations to the classic Star Wars films.
What quakes this movie in the most positive way is it’s third act. WOW! What an achievement of narrative within action. In an era when so many action movies go on automatic pilot and give us the tired old crash and bash nonsense, here is a movie that gets it right. The drama is built on our orientation of the placement of the players at every moment. We understand what is happening, what’s at stake and what the odds are. We know placement of men and hardware so that we get involved rather than sitting back and just watching a lot of random pyrotechnics. Rogue One is a masterwork of action and suspense, and while it all leads up to where we expect, it doesn’t do it in the way in which we expect. The actual mission to retrieve the plans is accompanied by a ground assault that starts small and then escalates into a full scale war that never for a moment loses its forward momentum. It’s the most exciting thing this series has seen since the climax of The Empire Strikes Back. And since the characters aren’t burdened by having to return for sequels, their fate is not telegraphed in advance and some sacrifices are not only necessary but poignant.
I’m sort of on a high from this movie, first from having seen it with 250 other Star Wars fans on opening night, and second because it’s the first time in a very long time that I feel that the characters in a Star Wars movie live in an organic environment, one that is burdened by darkness and questions of morality in a way that I haven’t felt since The Lord of the Rings. As with Jackson’s trilogy, Rogue One allows us to feel the pressure of a fallen society, crushed under the heel of an overbearing entity. There is a complete world here. There are histories, rules, religions, traditions, connections. There is a weariness in the spirit of these characters worn down by two decades of war and oppression. Rogue One is so much more than I expected, and so much more than I ever thought to expect. It’s a grand adventure with a force all its own.