Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review: Disney Strikes Back and Goes Dark

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Another December, another Star Wars movie, or so Disney would like it to be for the foreseeable future. After last year’s warm franchise restart, The Force Awakens, director Gareth Edwards, coming off of 2014’s Godzilla, helms the first standalone spinoff, a gritty war story about just how the Rebellion ended up with those Death Star plans at the start of A New Hope. Rogue One is an answer to the Star Wars fans who claim that prequels don’t work for this saga. As a sequel to Revenge of the Sith and a prequel to the classic original, the film fits comfortably in the Star Wars continuity without making a fuss.

We follow Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young warrior who’s found herself in trouble with the Empire throughout her life. She’s the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant scientist that the Empire blackmailed into helping build the technology to make the Death Star the weapon of mass destruction we know it to be. Jyn’s path brings her into contact with a rebel spy, Cassian (Diego Luna), as well has his sarcastic, scene-stealing droid (Alan Tudyk), while they’re looking for her father and thus her in hopes of finding a weakness in the Empire’s lethal new toy. Rogue One‘s setup is clunky, with the script zipping from planet to planet for the first few scenes with no real reason to care because we spend so little time getting introduced to the franchise’s latest new faces.

The film eventually slows down when the three principle heroes reach Jedha, a rocky planet with ties to the Jedi and their long legacy before Anakin Skywalker ignited his lightsaber on a bunch of younglings. There they meet Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a blind but powerful Force worshipper, and his partner Baze (Jiang Wen), who brings the big guns. With the help of a defected Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), this scrappy team of misfits must find a way to gain the Rebellion its first victory.

This marks one of Edwards’ greatest successes, bringing back the feeling that the Rebellion is this “against all odds” force fighting for the freedom of the galaxy. More so than George Lucas’ original trilogy, however, Rogue One feels like a war film, with Cassian in particular, one of the film’s most layered and fascinating characters, taking on questionable tasks for the side of “good.” The film acknowledges that even the side we root for has to commit regrettable acts to achieve victory. This makes for a slightly more challenging Star Wars film than we’re used to, but one that still doesn’t forget to have its fun. The heroes are lovable, even if Jyn doesn’t hold a candle to The Force Awakens‘ Rey. But Chirrut makes for a hugely emotionally resonant supporting force for good, using his faith to find courage and fight against the oppression of the Empire. Donnie Yen gives the performance of the film.

On the side of evil, however, we’ve got Director Krennic (an underutilized Ben Mendelsohn), the rival to A New Hope‘s Grand Moff Tarkin, who’s eerily brought back to life through some unconvincing, and distracting CGI. But fear not, Darth Vader (once again voiced by James Earl Jones) is present intermittently throughout Rogue One, striking more fear than he has on screen since The Empire Strikes Back. You know a film isn’t quite as effective as it could be when a character who’s in just two or so scenes almost steals the whole movie. But then, Rogue One also serves as a reminder that there’s no character in cinema quite like Darth Vader.

As for other connections to the rest of the series, Jimmy Smits reprises his role as Bail Organa, last seen in Revenge of the Sith, proving Disney is in fact willing to acknowledge Lucas’ sometimes wrongfully maligned prequel trilogy (not to get into a whole thing, but Sith is pretty great, Attack of the Clones is flawed but watchable, and yes, The Phantom Menace is terrible). But there are other distracting moments of fan service, where references briefly but blatantly intrude on the story Rogue One is trying to tell when they might be better off in the background. Moments like these, which were present, though to a lesser degree, in The Force Awakens, contribute to a sense that Disney’s Star Wars films want audiences to accept them so much that they start to feel inauthentic to Lucas’ world and the style in which he delivered it to us. There’s no question that Rogue One is superior to The Phantom Menace as a film, but there’s a certain stamp, a certain messiness missing that makes it feel like a new captain took over the ship and is trying a little too hard to be just like the old captain so the crew doesn’t riot.

But then you get to the third act of Rogue One and you just enter pure Star Wars bliss. It washes over you as X-wings dogfight TIE fighters and rebels scurry through the tropical beaches avoiding legions of stormtroopers. The “war” part of this Star Wars movie is flat-out one of the best set pieces of the year, even of the saga as a whole (though the Battle of Hoth is obviously still on top). What separates it from the climax of most other blockbusters in 2016 is stakes. Rogue One is fully aware that its characters don’t show up anywhere else in the Star Wars canon, and it deals with that head-on in unexpected and often beautiful ways.

So while not as cleverly plotted and with fewer instantly lovable characters as The Force AwakensRogue One keeps Disney’s still-early track record for the king of film franchises on the positive side. There are great set pieces, strong world-building, and actual stakes that make this a more exciting film than Episode VII, even if it isn’t nearly as polished. But all of Rogue One‘s flaws wash away the second you hear that iconic breathing. We’re still in good hands. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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