Now, this is the most satisfying Star Wars film since the Return of the Jedi.
I have to admit that watching the abomination that was The Force Awakens (your mileage may vary) this time last year really did a number on my passion for all things Star Wars.
It didn’t help that the Expanded Universe, the stuff of my childhood, had been thrown out of the window by Disney. The legacy of the characters of the original movies had been besmirched by the events of Episode 7. The prequels were an ignominious stain on the franchise’s name. The KOTOR storyline, which had been that other bright point in the Star Wars universe, had fizzled into a mediocre MMO churning out nonsensical storyline after nonsensical storyline.
I stepped into the theatre to watch Rogue One with low expectations. And, maybe because of that, Rogue One absolutely delivered.
Above all, Rogue One knows what the fans want. It might not be your typical Star Wars movie with the opening crawl and the Campbellian narrative. But it nails the spirit and the feel of the original Star Wars in a way that very few of the franchise’s derivative works have managed to do. From the hallways of the Tantive IV to the cavernous hangars of the Rebel base on Yavin IV, and even the 1970s inspired fashion and accents of the Rebels and Imperials, Rogue One inspires, first and foremost, a sense of nostalgic familiarity with the originals.
Rogue One knows how to do fanservice without being gratuitous about it. I liked some of the callbacks to images and characters in the originals – to the shot of the Rebel signaller witnessing the departure of ships from Yavin IV, to the decidedly retro computer screens (and the Death Star schematics with the superlaser positioned at the equator), to the fleeting appearance of Dr Evazan and his Aqualish sidekick, Ponda Baba, pre-amputation.
Rogue One continues Disney’s commitment to using more practical special effects, and it pays off. The epic fleet engagement above the skies of Scarif near the end of the film is the best and most visceral space battle since Return of the Jedi’s Battle of Endor, just because it’s so much more visually coherent and weighty than the weightless, Transformers-esque chaos of the space battles in the prequels. Some parts of that battle, like the hammerhead cruiser gambit, are likely to become holy-shit iconic moments in the franchise as a whole – like how an A-Wing brought down the SSD Executor.
The casting of the OT characters is also spot-on, from Genevieve O’Reilly’s graceful Mon Mothma to Guy Henry’s impeccably-voiced Governor Tarkin (albeit with the uncanny-valley digital recreation of Peter Cushing’s likeness). And, of course, Darth Vader. They really nailed the New Hope version of Vader, who is more sprightly and capable of gallows humor than the brooding figure he cut in latter episodes. And he is in top form – a powerful Force user at the peak of his badassery, force-choking and force-bodyslamming his hapless opponents right and left – an almost primally unstoppable force of nature.
Above all, Rogue One‘s biggest achievement is how it is able to so naturally fit into the chronology of the original films, while – in some cases – improving upon them by providing plausible explanations to some of the original trilogy’s more evident plotholes (and yes, it admittedly did much, much better than the EU at this). I have to give credit to the writers, who made sure that Rogue One was a self-contained story that didn’t create narrative reverberations that would have posed problems for the established canon. There are a lot of examples of this spirit, from making the call to have all the heroes perish at the end of the film, thus sidestepping the question of where they were in the originals, to the Battle of Scarif being the “victory” that the Rebels won against the Empire (referenced in the opening crawl in A New Hope) that led to the acquisition of the Death Star plans, to the utter destruction of the Rebel fleet in that battle, which would explain why the Alliance could only marshal a few paltry starfighters to destroy the Death Star in A New Hope.
And, of course, why have such an obvious and glaring weakness in the Death Star plans? The EU has tried to attribute it to simple incompetence, but I find Rogue One’s explanation – it being the secret legacy of its unwilling designer, Galen Erso, as his lasting attempt at penance for his part in the Death Star’s creation, and the main macguffin that necessitates the desperate effort to secure the plans in the first place – is far more thematically apropos. It is a rare occasion where a latter work has provided narrative context that improves upon the originals.
But enough about Rogue One as a Star Wars film. How is it as a film?
It’s actually a remarkably good one – tautly paced, never a dull moment, full of that visually arresting ‘used future’ feel that so set apart the Star Wars movies from everything else.
It’s an unrelentingly sober film, a surprisingly nuanced view of war, of the good guys doing bad things for the cause, as Cassian does when putting down a comrade too injured to escape to prevent his capture by Imperials. The atrocities committed by the Empire are visceral in a way that was never the case with other Star Wars movies. The slow, rolling destruction of Jedha’s Holy City was somehow more horrific than the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope.
There is a wide cast of characters, almost too many for some of them to get proper development. Jyn Erso is a little blander than you’d expect for the leading protagonist, and it’s never really clear how she transformed from aimless grifter to a motivated leader of men. Cassian is a little more compelling, his story being one of redemption. Orson Krennic is a great villain, someone who isn’t motivated by any amorphous ideology but simply by greed and ambition, demonstrating a very banal sort of evil.
The side characters range from forgettable to instant crowd pleasers. I feel sorry for how Bodhi Rook seemed to be relegated to a sideshow character, despite his story being possibly the most heroic of all – a perfectly normal bloke who risked everything to defect when he could have stayed, endured countless hardships, and gave his life to transmit the Death Star plans – but was given short shrift relative to the other characters. I wish the warrior monk Chirrut Imwe and his repeater-toting friend, Baze Malbus were given more screentime. And K2-SO, the #nofilter Imperial droid is the standout, providing much needed comic relief to an otherwise unrelenting film.
Spoilers – they all die. And its a brave, almost inspired decision by the filmmakers to do it for the sake of canon, but it also pushes home the message of the human cost of war, and also the impossible hope that emerged from their sacrifice. Rogue One celebrates the everyday folks, the non-Force users who went above and beyond to give Luke Skywalker the chance to be the hero. They are the unknown soldiers. No medals were given for their sacrifice, no tombs were raised. And yet, for a brief moment in the history of Star Wars, Rogue One gave them their chance to be known.
I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 Calamari cruisers