In 1977 lucky movie audiences got to experience George Lucas’ original Star Wars film for the first time. In the nearly forty years since the original film (now referred to as Episode IV of a still continuing saga and subtitled A New Hope) Star Wars has become the most popular film franchise of all time and created its own sub-culture with products in mediums ranging from action figures to comic books. Throughout these four decades unanswered questions have remained about the backstory of the original film, one of which being how the scrappy Rebel Alliance originally stole the plans for the evil Empire’s Death Star, the planet killing machine that Luke Skywalker and Han Solo would later destroy. That is the story told by the recently released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and it is told in exhilarating, though certainly not flawless, fashion.
The first in a set of stand alone films planned by the Star Wars universe’s new owners at Disney, Rogue One is unique amongst its sibling films in many aspects, including but not limited to tone, structure, themes, and the prescences (or lack thereof) of certain franchise hallmarks. Much of this indivuality comes from the fact that Rogue One is devoted to telling a story of war. While certainly not as emotionally charged or brutal as real-world war films Rogue One clearly draws inspiration from many war genre greats (with echoes particularly of Saving Private Ryan and Zero Dark Thirty). The mixing of these influences with those of past Star Wars films produces a film that is simultaneously blissfully adventurous and thematically impactful. In regards to tone, the military focused narrative makes Rogue One easily the second darkest Star Wars film (behind only the tragic, occasionally disturbing, Revenge of the Sith). Rogue One is also by far the fastest paced film in the franchise and this for the most part works to its advantage adding a sense of increased urgency and suspense (although the film’s opening ten minutes feel just a tad rushed). The film’s action sequences are often breathtaking, making up for the lack of lightsaber duels with engaging blaster fights and stunning space battles that employ a unique stylistic blend of classic Star Wars direction with that found in modern military films such as Fury or Lone Survivor.
Rogue One‘s ability to stand out among the Star Wars films can also be attributed to its unique cast and characters. While packed with delightful cameos from familiar faces from past films, at its core Rogue One follows a small military unit and this departure from the episodic films’ focus on the Skywalker family and its member’s friends makes Rogue One feel fresh. Felicity Jones portrays Jyn Erso, who has been scorned by her involvement with an extremist offshoot of the Rebel Alliance and childhood tragedy and who must reacquire her revolutionary values to strike a blow against the Empire and avenge loved ones. Jones is consistently impressive and occasionally more, but she doesn’t make quite as much of an impression as Daisy Ridley did in 2015’s Episode VII. Diego Luna’s conflicted Cassian Andor has perhaps the film’s most well executed character arc. Andor’s character provides the most opportunites for the film to explore it’s themes of war, operating with morally grey efficiency not usually seen in Star Wars (where morality seems to be strictly divided between good and evil, even if villains have been known to redeem themselves). Alan Tudyk as reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO is hysterical and highly entertaining given his lack of knowledge of human social cues and his not entirely purged bloodlust. Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe is perhaps the emotional center of the group and his performance as a warrior who preaches the ways of the Force is exhilarating, with Chirrut providing some spectacular hand-to-hand combat scenes. Jiang Wen portrays Baze Malbus, Chirrut’s partner and his struggle with his own belief in the Force is compelling, though very understated. Of the main Rebel unit only Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook is a weak link. Bodhi’s desire for redemption is thinly developed and unlike Wen’s, Ahmed’s performance is not dynamic enough to elevate the limited scenes that focus directly on his character. Outside of the core team, Forrest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, and Mads Mikkelsen round out the film’s main cast. Mikkelsen and Mendelsohn both do adequate work (the former as the film’s main Imperial villain and the latter as Jyn Erso’s conflicted father) but their characters are not developed enough to be truly memorable. Whittaker’s performance on the other hand, is simply bizarre with a strangely raspy voice and emotions that don’t even always make sense. Whittaker seems to be trying to make his Rebel extremist (really more of a terrorist) seem broken and dangerous but he just becomes irritating for the most part.
Ultimately Rogue One is one of the most entertaining films of the year as well as a worthy addition to the larger Star Wars series. While the film’s characters are not always the deepest its mixture of classic Star Wars elements with thoughtful war genre elements make up for its flaws.