Review: 'Rogue One' is an Exciting First Step into a Larger Universe
by Adam Frazier
December 13, 2016
Directed by Gareth Edwards (of Monsters and Godzilla), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first in a new series of Star Wars standalone films. Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, this is inspired by the opening crawl in George Lucas' original 1977 film:
"It is a period of civil war. 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. Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…"
A true prequel to the original Star Wars, Rogue One follows a group of Rebel spies on a mission to steal the design schematics for the Death Star. In the movie's prologue, we're introduced to Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), his wife Lyra (Valene Kane), and their young daughter Jyn (Beau Gadsdon). A brilliant scientist experimenting with kyber crystals, Galen developed the technology used to power the Death Star's superlaser. When work on the project stalls, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), director of the Empire's Advanced Weapons Research division, comes to retrieve the renowned polymath.
When Galen refuses to serve the Empire, Krennic's Death Troopers take the scientist into custody and force him to work. The orphaned Jyn is rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a Clone Wars veteran pivotal in the formation of the Rebel Alliance. Once Saw finds Jyn, the Rogue One title card appears and we pick up 15 years later where Jyn, now an impetuous, defiant young woman played by Felicity Jones, is rotting in an Imperial prison. This prologue is something new for the Star Wars series, eschewing the signature opening crawl and John Williams' iconic fanfare. It's reminiscent of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, in which we are introduced to a young character whose life is forever changed by tragedy, only to jump forward in time to see them as an adult searching for a cause.
Meanwhile, Rebel Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) intercepts a coded Imperial transmission from Galen Erso about a major weapons test. Cassian as well as K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), his reprogrammed Imperial droid, orchestrate a prison break to rescue Jyn, their only hope in tracking down Galen and sabotaging the Empire's new "planet killer." Cassian is dedicated and ruthless; a Rebel who sees the bigger picture and is willing to die for it. When Cassian and Jyn first meet, neither of them want to be doing what they're doing together – they're both better off on their own, or so they think.
Their mission takes them to the moon of Jedha, home to Saw Gerrera's rebel cell. Jedha is like Jerusalem, a holy site for pilgrims who seek guidance from the Force. The Empire has occupied the planet to control and extract its kyber crystal resources, which are being used to power the Death Star. Here we meet Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind monk who is a believer in the Force, and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), his world-weary friend who puts his faith in high-power blasters. Also joining the team, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial cargo pilot who defected to the Rebellion upon learning about the Death Star. After a reunion with Saw brings about some much-needed intel, Jyn and her squad are forced to band together to figure out how to stop the Empire.
Edwards and his cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly, Foxcatcher, The Gambler) create a tone within Rogue One akin to a docu-war film with a sense of gritty realism; a mash-up of Saving Private Ryan and The Empire Strikes Back, darker and edgier than what we've come to expect from George Lucas's sprawling space saga. Watching the intense action on display here, I felt like a kid again, orchestrating epic battles with my Kenner Star Wars toys in the backyard — you get the impression that Edwards spent most of his childhood doing the same thing.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a powerful, emotionally resonant addition to the Star Wars mythos, with characters worth investing in and an intriguing story that reshapes the original trilogy in exciting ways. Like Leia and Rey, Jyn is a great heroine – a strong, loyal, and fiercely determined woman who is allowed to be tough and vulnerable at the same time. Another standout is Donnie Yen's Chirrut, a warrior-monk with a sense of humor, who can see into the hearts of his fellow fighters. He's the film's spiritual center, like Obi-Wan or Yoda, bringing hope to an otherwise hopeless situation. Mendelsohn and Mikkelsen are great in their limited roles, and Tudyk gets a few laughs as the snarky, cynical "K", who is the film's anti-Threepio, but it's the return of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) that solidifies Rogue One as a must-see Star Wars event. He isn't a major part of the film, but the Dark Lord of the Sith makes his presence felt in a way we've never seen before. This is Vader at his most badass, and it's truly awesome to behold.
If there are issues with Rogue One, it's that — like The Force Awakens — it often overindulges in fan service. The film is stuffed with cameos and references to other Star Wars films that make the galaxy feel smaller instead of expanding it. Some of these cameos are integral to the story, while others feel included just because. Seeing a couple of familiar Mos Eisley Cantina patrons on Jedha is good for a quick laugh, but it's a throwaway scene that distracts from all the new characters and places. Speaking of new places, Rogue One is filled with exotic worlds to explore, so many, in fact, that it's hard to keep track of them. The film jumps from planet to planet at a dizzying pace at first, before slowing down in the middle to over-complicate the plot with twists and turns that feel added to raise the stakes and create unnecessary conflict.
Still, despite these minor quibbles, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the best Star Wars prequel to date and a thrilling standalone adventure with jaw-dropping special effects and some truly iconic moments. As a lifelong Star Wars fan, I was delighted by many of the film's revelations and character moments — it's refreshing to see a huge studio taking risks with such a beloved franchise, stretching out and trying new things. Walt Disney Studios and Lucasfilm have taken their first step into a larger world, and I'm excited to tag along for the journey.
Adam's Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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