Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The first live-action “Star Wars” film to not revolve around the Skywalker family has many things to distinguish it from the previous seven entries in the franchise. It doesn’t have an opening crawl to set the scene, but rather, and pre-title sequence that serves the same purpose. There isn’t the typical heroic bluster of a John Williams score, but instead, a more muted and distinctive musical effort by Michael Giacchino, although not quite as distinctive as one hopes to get from a great, non-Williams score for this franchise (Giacchino replaced Alexandre Desplat late in the game when reshoots pushed back the lock date for the picture, although a second viewing revealed plenty of musical pleasures missed the first time). This is not a story of Jedi vs. Sith, but a war-time espionage adventure centered around a pivotal moment we’ve only seen the aftermath to. And finally, this is the first time we’ve seen CGI significantly used to bring known characters from the original trilogy to the look and place in the franchise from back in 1977, and while sometimes it works, other times it’s a trip to “uncanny valley” too far. More importantly, it’s the first experiment in a larger cinematic universe of storytelling for the venerable sci-fi franchise, of telling a story peripheral to the central narrative rather than a vital piece of that soon-to-be nine-film cycle, and it’s more fun than it probably should be, done with a clarity of vision that we hope extends to future outings like it, starting with a pre-“New Hope” Han Solo adventure in two years.
When you think about it, the collective success of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which was hatched by longtime “Star Wars” Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll, should not really be surprising to the fans who have been keeping up with the “Star Wars” franchise since the prequels ended in 2005. In other words, if you’ve watched the animated “Clone Wars” and “Rebels” TV shows, you can see how “Star Wars” is capable of functioning without the familial melodrama of the Skywalker soap opera at its center. Still, it was understandable for people to be skeptical of a film that didn’t have the traditional good vs. evil dynamics of George Lucas’s franchise at its center. Like a tragic true story, this is a film whose ending, and aftermath, are already known to people who have watched the series over the years, or rather, since the beginning in 1977. The story Knoll pitched, and has had fleshed out by screenwriters Gary Whitta (“The Book of Eli”), Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) and Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne Supremacy”), is about the mission to discover the truth about the Death Star, the new superweapon the Empire has come up with as a way of controlling the galaxy while the Rebellion has taken hold of people who view the Empire as the totalitarian dictatorship it is. The Death Star would be blown up by Luke Skywalker after the Rebels stole plans for the base that showed a weakness in the battlestation. This is the story of that theft, and it’s a doozy of a ride.
At the center of the film is Jyn Erso, the daughter of a science officer who was the brains behind the Death Star, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). When we first meet Galen, he has fleed the Empire with his wife (Valene Kane) and young daughter, Jyn (Dolly Gadsdon). His home is set upon by Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, the commanding officer on the Death Star project for the Empire, and a squad of Death Troopers. He has come to force Galen’s hand to return and help finish the work. While he would prefer to have Galen’s wife and daughter there as leverage, his wife is shot when she tries to retaliate, and Jyn is sent to hide before being found by an old friend, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a former Clone Trooper who is now an extremist leading a guerilla war against the Empire. Fifteen years later, Jyn (played now by Felicity Jones) is a criminal who has been arrested and is serving time in an Imperial detention cell on Wobani; living under a false identity, the Empire does not know who she truly is. She is soon broken free by the Rebel Alliance, who has caught wind of her connection to Saw Gerrera, who is said to have a defected Imperial cargo pilot (Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook) with knowledge of the Death Star. They need Jyn to arrange a meeting with Saw, and assign intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to keep an eye on her.
That last paragraph may sound like I’m ready to spill the beans on everything about “Rogue One,” but the truth is, I’ve barely scratched the surface, although honestly, if you think about the premise of “Rogue One,” it’s hard to imagine a summary plot detail really offering much in the way of surprises, given that the payoff for this film came in 1977’s “A New Hope.” That’s not exactly true, however, because it’s the way “Rogue One” goes about its business that offers the greatest satisfaction for viewers. This is essentially “The Dirty Dozen” in space with plenty of homage to “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” thrown in for good measure. This is a war film, first and foremost, which is something generally new for the franchise (though not for people versed in the animated TV shows), because while there have been plenty of battle scenes over the years, “Rogue One” doesn’t focus on an overarching emotional story like the Skywalker saga films, and gets into the planning and strategy of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance on the ground level. Whether Luke or Leia are alive, whether Yoda or Obi-Wan survived Order 66, and the identity of Darth Vader (who makes an extended cameo here, and is, once again, voiced by the great James Earl Jones) are of no consequence to the characters at the heart of this film, and that is, quite frankly, one of its strongest qualities. We are diving into the crevasses of the “Star Wars” universe, the nooks and crannies, for stories that illuminate the franchise from a thematic standpoint, while also offering connective tissue between eras of the saga’s storytelling, and the way the story is told. I remember the excitement fans had when a young Mon Mothma, who was first seen in “Return of the Jedi,” found her way into the first teaser for this film; played by Genevieve O’Reilly, she was originally in a scene in “Revenge of the Sith” that got cut, but “Rogue One” finds good use for her, even if its not a terribly circumstantial role in the film. (The same goes with Jimmy Smits’s Bail Organa, Leia’s adopted father, from the prequels.) We even get a bigger cameo by Grand Moff Tarkin, the wicked Imperial officer played by the late Peter Cushing in 1977. Through the use of actor Guy Henry for physical reference, the effects team at ILM has resurrected Cushing for the role with a better grasp of the visual effects required for a fully-CG recreation of an actor’s face than we’ve seen in years past (namely, Jeff Bridges in “Tron: Legacy”). It’s an impressive accomplishment for ILM that works well in many cases in this film, but not as well in others.
I mentioned “The Dirty Dozen” before, and that seems to be as good a template as any for how “Rogue One” unfolds. The main players in the journey to learn about the Death Star include not just Jyn, Cassian and Bodhi, but K-2SO, an Imperial droid that’s been reprogrammed, and is performed by Alan Tudyk, and two friends whom Jyn and Cassian pick up while looking for Saw, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen). Chirrut is a fascinating character, a blind, Force-sensitive warrior (though not a Jedi) who speaks of the mystical side of the Force in the same way Obi-Wan did in “A New Hope.” When a situation gets tight, he begins to chant, “I’m one with the Force, and the Force is with me,” as a way of centering himself. He is the spiritual center of the film, and Yen delivers a standout performance that is matched by Jiang, whose Baze is more of a soldier than Chirrut is, and skeptical of his friend’s devotion to the Force. When they find themselves on the battlfield at Scarrif, the Imperial outpost where the Death Star plans are, however, Baze comes to understand where his friend has been coming from all these years, and those moments are some of the most resonate in the film, from an emotional standpoint. Emotionally, this film rides less on individual moments but a sweeping feeling of excitement in watching the Rebel Alliance take this huge step in its struggle against the Empire, especially since we understand what happens after. This is part of why Jyn is such a strong lead character for the film; her emotional connection to her father is what gets her started in this film, but it’s how she is drawn into the larger rebellion, and what that means in defining her, that brings the film home. She didn’t ask for this, but she proves herself more than up to the task, and Jones (an Oscar nominee for “The Theory of Everything”) shines every step of the way.
If I had to characterize the ending of “Rogue One,” and the feelings it elicited, the closest I can compare it with is the ending of “Revenge of the Sith.” In both cases, the events we just witnessed help lay the narrative groundwork to what was our entrance into George Lucas’s world, but it’s how those events enhance our understanding of the struggles of “A New Hope” and the rest of the original trilogy that this film gets its eventual emotional impact. That, and the fact that Gareth Edwards (2014’s “Godzilla”) is just damn good at finding a new way to bring out the best in existing intellectual properties, where plenty of stories have yet to be told. Consider the bar raised, all filmmakers who venture here.