REVIEW: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 133 minutes | Release Date: December 16th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Lucasfilm / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Gareth Edwards
Writer(s): Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy / John Knoll and Gary Whitta (story) /
George Lucas (characters)

“Rebellions are built on hope”

George Lucas used to say years ago that the original Star Wars trilogy was but three chapters of an epic nine-part saga. It dealt with the Skywalker family, beginning in the middle to introduce a passing of the “Force” from father to son. Lucas would eventually make the first three chapters as a prequel series used to tell the tale of Anakin Skywalker’s descent towards the Dark Side for exposition into the stunning reveal his becoming Luke and Leia’s formidable foe in A New Hope and beyond provides. The final three forever remained mere speculation. Were they to deal with Luke, Leia, and Han Solo growing old in a new Republic? Were they to deal with their offspring decades later? Disney opened their checkbook and provided our answer.

You don’t, however, spend a billion dollars to simply have an opportunity to create three films and then say goodbye to that galaxy far, far away. You spend it to expand what was a very specific, single family-focused tale into something much, much bigger. But you do it gradually with connective tissue to what we know so as not to alienate an existing audience and flood the market with hastily constructed knock-offs. In this regard, you have to give the Mouse House some credit because the planned Han Solo origin tale would have been the safest bet as far as branching out. Maybe they saw how well it worked for Fox with their X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and scrapped Magneto) spin-off to realize story does trump character.

Instead the studio turned their focus to the widely speculated (in fan circles) subject of how a weapon as massive and powerful as the Death Star could have a weakness as profoundly destructive as its reactor core. Could exploding a planet killer truly be as simple as firing a couple energy blasts into a tiny opening? (Forgetting the rather arduous process of stealing the blueprints showing where that opening is from within an Imperial base.) Well, deciding this became the task set upon Gary Whitta and John Knoll—their story refashioned by Chris Weitz (and probably countless other uncredited script doctors) before Tony Gilroy entered the fray for in-production rewrites. How did this Achilles Hell come to be and how did the Rebellion discover it?

Meet the Erso family: scientist and Empire-objector father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen); loving and protecting mother, Lyra (Valene Kane); and young daughter, Jyn (her adult self played by Felicity Jones). Thought free of the chaos brewing, an uninvited guest comes visiting with orders to join his quest for peace through terror. Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) promised the Emperor (and by extension Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin) a weapon with the force to place the entire galaxy under their control. He knows Galen is the only one able to help make that nightmare a reality and isn’t afraid to do whatever is necessary to coerce him back into the fold. Knowing how far he’d go, Galen hides Jyn with a friend (Forest Whitaker‘s Saw Gerrera) and our story begins.

Rogue One continues fifteen years later with the Death Star days away from completion. It exists well after Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and just before Episode IV: A New Hope. Leia hasn’t been sent with her message to Obi Wan Kenobi yet and the Rebellion doesn’t know this extinction machine is possible. All they have is the word of an Imperial pilot who’s defected named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed). His intelligence comes direct from Galen, now the Emperor’s chief architect of death. Sent to Erso’s old friend Gerrera, however, the Rebellion finds itself outside the loop. Saw went extremist years ago, leaving his allies to wage a much more brutal war against their common enemies. They’ll need a way through Saw’s gang to intercept the information.

It’s a rather impressive bit of convenience written as convincingly as possible. We separately meet a cynically jaded Jyn now locked up for unknown crimes, loyal Rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and the aforementioned Bodhi to watch their collision course unfold. The current whereabouts of Krennic and Saw are also revealed, good and evil clearly marked. Questions about whether Galen can be trusted considering the work and position he has earned on the side of evil abound, new friends in Jedi-sympathizers Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) are made, and the hope for a future where freedom survives is put into the hands of a young woman who wants nothing to do it. This war destroyed Jyn’s family and it’s come knocking again.

Director Gareth Edwards—no stranger to large-scale atmospheric and emotional scope after his effective Godzilla reboot—leads a group of ragtag rebels putting everything on the line. They aren’t perfect soldiers, perfect people, or even exclusively willing participants, but they know the stakes and possess the ability to do what’s right when the moment comes. Rogue One is the Star Wars universe’s The Expendables. It’s its Suicide Squad. What sets it apart, however, is that those titles proved mere flash to sell tickets. This fight will take lives, possibly every last one. We already know the result: Luke destroys the Death Star. So the plans were stolen, the defect exploited. But without these brave souls on the frontlines, Yavin IV is blown to bits and darkness reigns.

There’s a wonderful sense of calm knowing what’s next. We don’t have to worry about whether they succeed and therefore can invest in the characters. Plot is pushed to the background as we get to know why Cassian has become a dutiful assassin. Why Jyn has forsaken the Rebellion. Why Baze has grown surly while Chirrut remains steadfast in his faith. We immediately get to see K-2SO (Alan Tudyk)—a rewired Imperial android that’s now Cassian’s second-in-command—as an entity with purpose and weight rather than merely comic relief like C-3PO largely proved until subsequent chapters delved deeper. And perhaps most glaring is an understanding of Bodhi’s struggle to repent. Their battle is ultimately for redemption, an achievement more valuable in these dire times than life itself.

Say what you will about the action (space fights between TIE fighters and X-wings have never been so exciting), the CGI characters (bringing Peter Cushing back from the dead as Tarkin isn’t horrible visually as much as it is proof of how this movie’s main point of existence is to plug plot holes and vagueness in Episode IV), or the acting (the diversity and excellence is only overshadowed by yet another brunette white heroine), Rogue One lives or dies with how willing you are to believe these Rebels will go to the ends of the galaxy to prove their lives weren’t lived futilely in the service of lies. You must believe each one would disregard orders, run off to war, and find courage in the face of adversity.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a Star Wars fan, but I bought in instantly. Edwards shows no mercy with an early death before continuing to embrace the gray areas of heroism through extensive collateral damage. Unlike Lucas’ space opera pretty much insulating its Skywalker clan from major sacrifice not reborn as blue Force visions, Rogue One is all about the melancholy and personal tragedy of war. There’s welcome humor thanks to K-2SO and Yen’s brilliantly conceived Jedi-conduit Chirrut, but it tempers the horrors coming rather than replaces. The film cannot effectively exist on its own outside the saga, but that’s okay because its ability to enhance what we know is impeccably astute. It opens this world to an authentic sense of dark realism I pray subsequent installments retain.

courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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