I was 5 when I saw The Empire Strikes Back in theaters (a gift for me and my brother to go with my parents and my aunts and uncles). It would be 2 years before I saw Star Wars (AKA A New Hope) in a theater and then, by age 8, I saw Return of the Jedi. I say this to both age myself a bit and to present that I was at the perfect age for the Star Wars saga to hit me. The tale of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and the rest of the Rebellion against the Evil Empire and Darth Vader is ingrained in me like I’m sure it is for many other children of my time.
But for all the times I watched it, the story always began the same way: with Episode 4’s opening crawl. The one that read “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.” And I wondered what they were talking about.
Rogue One gives that answer.
It is the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a small-time criminal making her way through the Galactic Empire as best she can on her own. This is because her parents were taken from her by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) for the purpose of completing construction on the Empire’s secret weapon, the Death Star. Her missing father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) manages to send a message out via defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) that lands in the hands of Rebel fanatic Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). The mission to retrieve the message falls to Jyn, Rebel Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Cassian’s droid, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Along the way they’ll pick up a pair of wayward warriors who believe in the Force in Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) as well as come face to face with the biggest dangers the galaxy has to offer.
I feel like I gave you the short, short version of the plot but I dare not reveal more. Truth is you don’t need much information prior to seeing this movie. It’s a companion to Episode 4 (AKA A New Hope AKA Star Wars) and you should be able to follow what is a straightforward story without too much trouble. The Rebels want to find Bodhi and Galen’s message. They need Jyn to get it since it’s in Saw Gerrera’s hands and he’s not in a sharing mood. Their mission will eventually uncover the depths of the Empire’s power and they’ll face a simple but profound choice: to stand and fight or to cut and run.
What I found was most interesting is that this is a story of the Rebellion grunts; not the big name heroes. No one is a Jedi — not even Chirrut, who believes in the Force. Not one of these characters is vested with “Chosen One” status by the plot. Characters who are supposed to be the heroes act in pretty unheroic ways: they kill allies, they lie and keep secrets, they consider surrendering. Even their position as Rebels does not guarantee that they will find a way out of things or that they’ll do the right thing. In many ways, it’s what Star Wars has been needing for such a long time.
At its heart is Jones’ Erso, a young woman who had her family taken by the greed of Director Krennic. Raised by Gerrera, she’s a tough fighter and a resourceful thief. She’s someone without a mission or a purpose. Her goal in life is to stay a step ahead of the Imperial forces and she cares for nothing and lives for nothing. Until Cassian rescues her and lets her know there’s a chance to connect with her missing father. This will allow her to start thinking of things beyond her own immediate survival. But her journey towards believer in the Rebel cause isn’t that easy. Jones does well with the character, but I’m not going to say she’s the hardest character to root for though. She provides a good anchor to the quest.
The rest of the team falls somewhere between interesting and expanded cameo. Luna’s Cassian is an interesting take on a Rebel. Perhaps at one point he was the wide-eyed optimist that Luke Skywalker would be, but at this point, he’s lost most of his hope. He goes along because he’s following orders and because he cannot just abandon things. That said, he’s not a hero — not at the start at least. Yen’s Chirrut and Wen’s Baze are a wonderful tandem who riff great off one another but they’re tangential to the story. They’re along for the ride. Ahmed’s Rook is a Macguffin at the start and then a hero at the end, but we learn little about him. I mean, why would Galen choose him to defect? Or was he planning on defecting all along? As for Whitaker’s Gerrera, it’s a small cameo that ends in an odd way. You get the sense he’s the kind of character that had more story to him than what ended up on screen.
The more interesting performances come from Tudyk’s K-2SO — a voiced-CGI character who is deadpan funny and who comes across as a more realized character — and from Mendelsohn’s Krennic. He is a careerist and an opportunist who sees in the Death Star project the chance to rise. How he manages to shepherd the Death Star to construction through kidnapping, manipulation and subterfuge only to have it wrested from him at the end causes some interesting interactions between him and major Star Wars characters. He’s equally smarmy and menacing; embodying the underlying evil of the Empire — the countless bureaucrats and opportunists that are willing to lie, kill and steal to gain power.
Working off a script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, director Gareth Edwards gets the chance to launch the Star Wars Anthology series in fine style. Rather than being full numbered Episodes in the Star Wars saga, these films would serve as companion pieces — standalone projects that would allow filmmakers to broaden that galaxy far, far away. Though, from all accounts, it wasn’t an easy ride. Re-writes and reshoots had to happen and you can sort of tell it’s so because scenes that appeared in the first few trailers are not here in the finished movie. It’s also felt in Michael Giacchino’s score — which he had only four weeks or so to compose — which while evocative of Williams’ classic material, doesn’t quite rise to its level.
The movie is good. It is fun. In a weird way, freed from the Hero’s Journey of the main movies, Rogue One is able to breathe and show us a different aspect of the Rebellion and of the Empire. These aren’t unified fronts as we’d seen before. The Empire is full of conniving and nefarious characters. The Rebels, on the other hand, are not unified at all. They’re uncertain of their goals and are in danger of breaking apart at the seams — Saw Gerrero’s choice to leave them for a more fundamentalist take on rebellion being one example. The idea that the group we met on Episode 4 was anywhere near a team is shattered here. In fact, it’s more like the Rebel Alliance is on its way of breaking up on its own before it has the chance to oppose the Empire because the task feels so beyond their means — and that’s before meeting the Death Star.
What this movie does have is action and it has it in spades. The story propels our characters forward and each action beat moves them towards the next. Edwards manages to build on the three key set pieces of the film — so that each one feels bigger and bigger — until we get to the Battle of Scarif. The price of admission is paid when that part starts because it’s what we’ve come to see. And it is epic and the odds are not with our heroes and this time that may mean something. This sense of balancing on a wire for the Rebels is really pushed here.
I am trying to stay ambiguous to the big reveals in Rogue One but I’ll say that there’s some surprises both big and small for long-time fans. While some of it is clearly fan service, most of it is meant to connect it with A New Hope so that you can ideally match one’s ending with the other’s beginning in a continuous story. There are a few key effects though that can work on some and not on others. Just keep in mind that they’re making a movie that connects to another nearly 40 years old. A little suspension of disbelief is mandatory. I’d also add that it misses on an interesting chance to tie the Prequels with the Original Trilogy with the Death Star plans — seen first chronologically in Attack of the Clones. It’s a minor quibble.
Ultimately what makes Rogue One so good is that it’s willing to take us to the Star Wars universe without any safety net. Jyn and her crew might make it or they might not but there’s no plot armor to defend them. This in turn makes it a very dark film. One where death is real and sacrifices can go unnoticed. Jyn has this line about taking a chance then the next one and the next one until they’re all used up or they’ve won. In a way, that’s what I think will happen to the Star Wars Anthology movies. They’ll make another one — the Han Solo project — and another until we’ve heard every tale that can be told or filmmakers stop finding a way to dazzle us with stories. This is a great first step. One I hope will find its way into the minds and hearts of many young kids for years to come.