By: Hawk Ripjaw (Two Beers)-
It’s been nineteen years since the fall of the Galactic Senate in Revenge of the Sith, and a mere four since Disney
purchased rescued the franchise from George Lucas. In the time since, the Empire has been hard at work developing a new superweapon to dominate the galaxy, chiefly assisted by brilliant engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Erso is a hostage of the Empire, working on the Death Star only to protect his daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) and wife. Years later, Jyn is grown up and bitter, and agrees to join Rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his repurposed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to find Galen Erso and locate the plans to the Death Star before its mastermind, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) can complete it. They are joined by former Force-sensitive guardians Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who has alerted the Rebels to the Death Star blueprints. The Death Star is built and ready for action–it’s not about stopping it from happening; it’s about stopping it from being used.
In every way, Gareth Edwards offers up a darker, grittier, more realistic film than what we’ve all be used to from the franchise. The cinematography delivers that same sense of foreboding that made Edwards’ Godzilla so imposing, and the stakes feel much higher. Rebel assaults feel like guerilla terrorist attacks, the Empire hasn’t been this imposing since Episode V, and a glimpse of what the Death Star can do viewed from the target planet’s surface is nothing short of terrifying. Even Darth Vader gets one horrific scene to show off his awesome power. Like the franchise has rarely been, this film is actually gripping.
For the most part, the new cast of characters is great. Felicity Jones makes Jyn into a compelling protagonist on pure charisma alone, K-2SO is the main source of comic relief as a robot who throws shade at every chance, Ben Mendelsohn brings a furious energy to Krennic, and Donnie Yen as Chirrut is a total badass. The Force, instead of being used as an excuse for people to wield Space Magic, is treated as a true, semi-intangible thing that is involved in characters’ lives–like a religion that the people of this world accept, and sometimes embrace and have faith in, even as everything falls apart. While he appears to lack any flashy Force powers, the blind Chirrut is able to use the Force in some different ways that puts him in a class of his own in terms of Force-sensitive characters (let’s just say there’s definitely a reason Donnie Yen was cast for the role, and they make good use of him).
Rogue One also makes generous, yet incredibly elegant callbacks to those original films. Whether it’s characters we met way back in 1977 or references to technology or locations, there are many things here that will conjure a delirious nostalgia buzz, and almost completely done in a way that doesn’t feel like deliberate fan service. In particular, the worn-down, rickety, dirty aesthetic of the original films is perfectly replicated here–right down to the seemingly-useless lights and buttons–and the final moments of the film connect to A New Hope so cleanly it’s practically seamless. There’s even a clever explanation given for the old joke about why exactly the Death Star has such a fatal flaw as a hole leading to its one weak spot.
Once all of the pieces are in place, Rogue One culminates in an absolutely spectacular climactic sequence on the ground and in the air. This is one of the largest-scale, dramatic and thrilling sequences the franchise has ever seen, and even with full knowledge of how this is going to lead into A New Hope and what that means for everyone involved, it doesn’t fail to be a completely tense and satisfying finale. To boot, no Stars Wars film since A New Hope has felt more immediately accessible to outsiders or even casual fans of the franchise.
Rogue One stumbles slightly with similar issues that have affected the rest of the franchise: the characters don’t all feel completely developed, and several lack coherent arcs. They’re all good characters, and fun to watch, but very few of them feel like they’ve changed much between their first introduction and the end of the final reel. On the other hand, besides Jyn and Cassian–whose eventual friendship feels oddly rushed–the development of the characters from ragtag rebels to an actual team is organic, even if their individual traits don’t quite change. It’s not entirely distracting, since at this point it’s just another expected element of the franchise, but it’s also not unfair for fans to demand that Disney place more weight onto characters that feel like humans instead of pieces of a plot machine.
Last year’s The Force Awakens was a profoundly entertaining film that felt like meeting an old friend after years of no contact. It also played itself incredibly safe, closely following the blueprint of A New Hope in many ways, for better or for worse–a friend that retained all of their lovable traits, but really hadn’t grown up either. Rogue One is a different beast. It dispenses almost entirely with Force usage and lightsabers (and entirely lacks an opening text crawl exposition dump), and opts for a grittier war movie over another fun adventure in a galaxy far, far away. For that, at the very least, Disney and Lucasfilm deserve a round of applause. Rogue One is arguably a little rougher around the edges than last year’s film, but the risks that the studio chose to take make it significantly more interesting, not only as a movie but for what it proves is possible for the franchise. It feels simultaneously like a Star Wars film, and not quite like one, a balancing act that is executed better than we could have asked for.
It’s a gift to Star Wars fans, and one of the best, most satisfying stories the franchise has yet had.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time someone says “The Force.”
Take a Drink: for every line drawn to the Original Trilogy.
Do a Shot: whenever K-2SO talks some shit.
Do a Shot: every time Krennic gets pissed off.