After Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side and just before Princess Leia
found a New Hope, a group of brave warriors set out to save the galaxy by
stealing the top-secret schematics of Darth Vader's planet-obliterating Death
Star. Their story—one paved in courage and, potentially, the ultimate
sacrifice—is given a brief, shining moment in the spotlight in "Rogue One," the
first in a planned series of big-screen spin-offs meant to provide insight and
shading to the "Star Wars" canon. Director Gareth Edwards (2014's "Godzilla")
and scribes Chris Weitz (2015's "Cinderella")
and Tony Gilroy (2012's "The
Bourne Legacy") have made either a standalone feature or an
unofficial Episode III 1/2, remaining faithful to what must inevitably happen at
the risk of culminating in a downer of a third act. If their narrative and
characters prove somewhat undernourished, credit is due in just how involving
they ensure their every component finally becomes.
Felicity Jones (2016's "Inferno") is emotionally all in, bringing equal parts
fortitude and vulnerability to heroine Jyn Erso. Having watched her mother
killed and her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), abducted when she was only a
child, Jyn has lived much of her life in Imperial captivity. A chance at freedom
arrives when she is recruited by the Rebellion to track down her dad. He was
directly involved in designing the Galactic Empire's heavily armed space station
Death Star, and may also hold the key in destroying it. Joining Jyn on her quest
are Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an Intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance,
and trusty android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk).
One of the crafty achievements of "Rogue One" (the subtitle used in advertising,
"A Star Wars Story," is nowhere to be found in the film proper) is how
seamlessly it is able to segue into 1977's "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope."
While the end goal is a foregone conclusion for fans who know the "Star Wars"
pictures inside and out, its last twenty minutes genuinely surprise with how
riveting they become. The setup to this war-torn climax is long and pacing
admittedly lags due to a certain lack of development—one yearns, for example, to
learn more about Jyn and her experiences in the intervening years between
childhood and when the plot picks up with her two decades later—but the
gripping-bordering-on-haunting payoff makes the wait worthwhile.
Performances are reliable across the board, from Diego Luna's (2013's "Elysium") Cassian to Mads Mikkelsen's (2010's "Clash of the Titans") Galen, but this is by
and large Felicity Jones' film. She makes the most of what is a one-and-done
role, her fate and that of her comrades blessing the proceedings with an
unsentimental cumulative pathos. There is an undeniable tragedy in Jyn's life
story, but she voyages forward, risking everything while playing her own part in
saving the universe. As well-cast as Ben Mendelsohn (2014's "Exodus: Gods and
Kings") is as the villainous Orson Krennic, Director of Advanced Weapons
Research for the Imperial Army, the character is a rather generic baddie, no
match for the weightier, more daunting likes of Darth Vader (who memorably
appears, along with James Earl Jones' iconic voice, in a few scenes).
"Rogue One" is too bleak to be truly rousing, but that is at least partially why
it lingers and percolates in one's memory after it is over. Restricted by the
requirements of the material, director Gareth Edwards sees the unique personal
stamp he put on 2010's "Monsters" and 2014's "Godzilla"
softened here even as he refuses to compromise. Meanwhile, composer Michael Giacchino's (2016's
Trek Beyond") stirring music score stands on its own while paying
spry tribute to John Williams' original themes and orchestrations. Tech credits
are, naturally, ace across the board. "Rogue One" is less broadly entertaining
than the best of the "Star Wars" installments, including 2015's terrific J.J.
Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens." The requirements of the
premise and where it must lead trap it in a corner, levity replaced by a
sobering undercurrent that only deepens in hindsight. Even if replay value, by
extension, is likely less than the norm for the ongoing saga, Edwards uses the
story's limited boundaries to his benefit. By the note-perfect closing moments,
"Rogue One" has transformed into a richly rewarding experience.
Given how ingrained in Episode IV’s story it is - the end of Rogue One almost
runs straight into the start of A New Hope – it's surprising how fresh Rogue One
feels. Yes, it's a Star Wars film through and through, but it's unlike any of
its seven predecessors in some ways. It's filled with gritted teeth,
desperation, and a nervous energy. Whereas JJ Abrams nailed the mythic quality
of the series in The Force Awakens, Edwards has pinned down the military side –
JJ got the “star”, Edwards got the “wars”. In a series as clean-cut and populist
as Star Wars, it takes some guts to suggest that the heroic Rebellion might make
people question its goals. The path to A New Hope is littered with bodies,
wreckage, and sacrifice.
In short, Rogue One works. It’s a cracking sci-fi adventure worthy of the Star
Wars brand. There’s no opening crawl, no Jedi, no mention of the name Skywalker,
and plenty of new music, but Rogue One does a great job of walking the fine line
between being a Star Wars film and not feeling like any other Star Wars film.