You don’t need to be reminded that 2016 was the year everyone wanted to go back to a safer time and wished for nostalgic member berries to be spoonfed to them. This has worked remarkably well for Hollywood since it provides an excuse to either remake or produce sequels to all sorts of recognizable films, possibly moreso this year than ever before. Do these movies truly warrant existing? Is there more to them than just making box office gold? In some cases, yes, and I will argue that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is one such case. In fact, it may be one of the most refreshingly ballsy (in terms of having actual stakes) and well-made films of the year.
I’ll admit it; I’m quite the sucker for Star Wars, but I can tell when true effort has gone into the filmmaking and the special effects (which in this film are about creating depth and scale to the alien worlds and machines as opposed to flashy action nonsense). And even when I spotted fanservice in the previews for Rogue One, it felt like there was more to it than in-your-face references and an overabundance of lightsabers.
To elaborate, Rogue One is set right before the first film – that is to say Episode IV: A New Hope (if you agree to call it that). It tells of how the Rebel Alliance actually went about snatching the construction plans of the Death Star from the Galactic Empire, even going so far as to retconning the superweapon’s fatal design flaw in such a way that it now kinda makes sense.
It begins when a weapons designer named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is kidnapped by the despicable Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the Empire’s Director of Advanced Weapon’s Research, to help perfect the planet-destroying superweapon in question. Galen’s daughter Jyn grows up to be Felicity Jones and eventually becomes involved in the business of the Rebel Alliance when they intercept a message from Galen regarding the Death Star. She is thus picked up on a vaguely Tatooine-looking planet by a Rebellion officer named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid companion K-S2O (Alan Tudyk) – a reformed Imperial droid whose reprogramming has cursed him with the side-effect of having a sense of humor. This is inarguably the best character in the film.
Our heroes run into more new characters on their quest to find the plans and send them to the Rebel Alliance. This surprisingly race-diverse set of newcomers include Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an Imperial pilot now loyal to the Rebellion named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a blind temple keeper who’s “one with The Force” named Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and also Chirrut’s assassin friend Baze (Jiang Wen). Many of these key players are introduced or name-dropped early on and shown in many different locations, so it’s not unlikely that the film will initially confuse some viewers. It gets easier to keep to track of, however.
Naturally, there are some returning characters as well. Rebel leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) is a dead-ringer for the person we saw 30 years ago, Jimmy Smits reprises his role as Senator Organa, and yes, we do briefly get to hear James Earle Jones voice the sinister Darth Vader once more – albeit in a way too clean-looking costume this time. That would make this the first time we properly see Darth Vader on the big screen since Return of the Jedi. Take your best guess as to why I’m not counting Revenge of the Sith.
The most inexplicable return, though, is probably Grand Moff Tarkin, played by a digitally recreated Peter Cushing, who is so deep down the Uncanny Valley that he was no doubt having tea with the Polar Express cast when the camera wasn’t rolling. He either looks like a caricature of his former self or an escaped inhabitant of a PS4 game, yet I am told many viewers are impressed with the effect. I certainly don’t want to be too hard on Hal Hickel, John Knoll and the rest of ILM for what’s otherwise extravagant VFX work, which also goes for the practical stuff, but computers just aren’t at the point where they can perfectly emulate dead celebrities yet (which is lucky for mankind, I would say). And don’t get me wrong, it does make sense for Tarkin to be part of a story that involves the first Death Star. However, was this really the best method?
Either way, it’s fanservice-esque content like this that weighs the movie down a little for me (it has quite a few pointless but sometimes fun character cameos that I won’t give away), although I must say it again: there is more love behind it this time than during the prequel trilogy. It just seems “nicer” when you include neat details for the fans to notice than when you regurgitate themes and visuals to either jerk yourself off as an auteur by creating “poetry that rhymes” or sell toys. Even so, there are parts of this film that will straight-up make you think “fanfic”. I’m not sure Darth Vader ever lived in an ominous lava tower or was quite so handy with The Force during his post-mutilation years. Or made lame quips whilst strangling his underlings with his powers.
Another problem is that, even though the universe of this film resembles that of the original Star Wars trilogy to a tee (futuristic but old-fashioned; advanced yet gritty), we do live in a time where most directors are forced to stick to a formula and essentially make other people’s movies, lest they get treated the way Marvel treated Edgar Wright during the making of Ant-Man. There’s a pretty excellent Cracked article on the subject here, using the rebooted Star Wars films as an example.
I would argue, however, that Gareth Edwards adds a sense of scale to the world of Star Wars that we haven’t before seen. He did something similar with the beasts in Godzilla by using the correct lighting, cinematography and sound design to create the most physically imposing – and convincing – iteration of the eponymous kaiju that we’ve seen so far. In Rogue One, the way the Death Star and the surrounding Imperial ships and planets are shot and lit makes everything seem more grand and awe-inspiring than ever.
Sure I don’t know why the title sounds more like an EU novel than a Star Wars film or why the posters make the climactic battle look more like something out of a beach movie. But it’s a nonetheless gorgeous film that supplies likable characters, clever set pieces, better X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter dogfights than ever, a few actually nifty references, mostly solid performances (Krennic was oftentimes hammy and I’m still not sure what Forest Whitaker was supposed to be) and just something a little different from your typical Star Wars episode. The most metathesiophobic fanboys have dreaded the lack of a John Williams opening crawl and see this as more of an “appetizer” (their word) for the next proper sequel, but if you want an unusual view at the Star Wars universe that comes from the “real deal” as opposed to TheForce.net, this film will more than satisfy you.
Heck, some other fans are already saying they liked this movie more than The Force Awakens. I disagree in some ways (I liked the main characters in TFA more, whereas Rogue One often had its side-characters outshine the leads) but in some ways I unquestionably agree! It is about time an entry in the Star Wars franchise put this much emphasis on the “war” part and gave us a Hollywood blockbuster that isn’t shy about having death and war mean something (MILD SPOILER: it could so easily have ended happily at the last second and I am so glad it didn’t), creates a genuine sense of awe in its effects, and also lets us “officially” see these iconic inventions and creatures do things that Fan Films have merely teased us with. I am giving this one a 3.5/5 and zero regrets.