Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy (screenplay), John Knoll & Gary Whitta (story), and George Lucas (characters)
Stars: Felicity Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, James Earl Jones, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, & Jiang Wen
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Sci-fi
Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action)
My childhood was punctuated by a deep appreciation for all things Star Wars. The movies (of course), music, toys, books, and games… I even wore Star Wars baseball caps so much that the sweat of my travels still show to this day. Without the internet, I poured over the lore in guidebooks and novels I bought and checked out from the library. I’ve learned more than many even care to know about that galaxy far, far away. I’m not stating all of this to somehow brag, but to establish a context into my appreciation for it all.
Now, the path of the Jedi have always seemed to be the primary thrust of the Star Wars cinematic saga, namely as seen through the specific journey of the Skywalker family. This has always lent the films to focus on certain aspects of the lore. As such, moviegoers may expect certain things from a Star Wars film (even require), but growing up on more than the films (and even seeing most all of those experiences largely discarded for new tales still to be told), I read and imagined other tales beyond those requiring involvement of those “essential” lightsabers.
Han Solo was my early favorite (as highlighted in my piece last year, “Han Solo: A Christian Perspective“), and all he needed was a blaster at his side. He always seemed like a reluctant character drawn into a destiny much larger than himself. Surely, there were more “regular” people like him out there, and the expanded universe found in books and games confirmed my thoughts. Likewise, many battles only hinted at in the films always fascinated me, and while the original film predates my lifetime, the abruptness of that film’s beginning in the midst of an obvious conflict was predated by the activities of Rebel spies: unseen and unnamed, but highly important to beginning a story I loved so dearly. Star Wars has many tales to tell, and now, we get another. Yet, in this first “non-saga” film, is it a tale worth telling?
Violence/Scary Images: There is no question. Outside of the very dark content of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), you will not find a more violent Star Wars film up to this point. The filmmakers wanted to focus on war, and this is filled with it. You will see shots ring out on land and in space, characters suddenly die, children screaming in the streets, and destruction both on the largest and most intimate of scales. You will see new and familiar characters do horrible things. Those who follow my reviews know I place emphasis on the appropriateness for children, and my eight-year-old watched with me. She was fine, and we used it as discussion. You may too, but know that if you take a child, violence is heavy.
Language/Crude Humor: I do not recall any language in this film, in a series where if it has been used, it has been mild. Same is to be expected here.
Spiritual Content: Chirrut Imwe is a new character in this film with a new perspective, up to this point unseen in the film series. He is a Force-believer who is not a Jedi. While he cannot see, everything about him reflects back to the Force. He seems to be Force-sensitive and his fighting style is almost otherworldly. The character was a highlight in the film for me, and I think he will be for many. Not to give much away, but one particular scene involving him moved me deeply, as it exhibited the bravery of faith in a way that few Hollywood films have ever even attempted to show. The philosophies of Star Wars are deeply known in pop-culture, so I doubt anyone will be surprised to see faith-parallels, but be aware if these things cause you caution as a believer.
Sexual Content: None. At. All. This isn’t a love story in the slightest, and it was absolutely refreshing to see a female lead not swept up in the typical story beats that accompany adventure films. Male-female interaction exists within the boundaries of camaraderie and mutual respect.
Drug/Alcohol Reference: Cantina fans may be disappointed as we never actually visit one here (but that’s not to say we don’t see some old favorites pop up).
Other Negative Content: As alluded to in the discussion of violence above, you will see a certain character in ways that have only been shown in comics and extended media. One scene toward the end is particularly visceral in intensity but so effective for general audiences. Some may say it goes too far, and they may be right.
Positive Content: I have never witnessed in all of Star Wars the real heart behind the Rebellion until now. I regularly watch and love Star Wars: REBELS, and I have read of many tales. Still, understanding how a fractured and divided mass of beings can work together for good was thrilling to see. I must say that people on both sides of the Imperial/Rebel conflict do acts of good and evil in the film, and seeing that “realness” shown in the Star Wars universe was a treat. I feel Rogue One is a sophisticated and adult story told in a way that all ages can understand, even the young toy crowd.
To begin, I will provide a brief summary. In last year’s review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, our reviewer did not include a plot summary. I have decided to include one for this film, but please know that in reading it, I endeavor to guard the surprises as much as I can, because there are many here in this film, so viewers might deduce and some not foreseen at all. Arguably, by its place in the timeline and the very nature of the film’s purpose, the spoiling isn’t found in what happens, it’s found in how it all transpires.
(***MILD PLOT SPOILERS follow until end of warning***)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story centers on the journey of Jyn Erso (Jones), a girl orphaned by the Empire. After witnessing her father, Galen Erso (Mikkelsen), being captured to continue work on the Death Star, a planet-sized battlestation, by his former coworker and confidant, Admiral Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn), she is led away and raised by a militant Rebel named Saw Guerrera (Whitaker). Years later, the massive undertaking of the Death Star’s construction is completed, and Jyn is drawn into a plot of the Rebel Alliance tasking her to find Saw and her father. Her journey brings her into the path of many, including Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Luna), Chirrut Imwe (Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen), and a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Tudyk). The stakes are high to find a weakness to the terrible new weapon, but Jyn and her group under the call sign, Rogue One, fight the fight necessary to secure hope for a flailing resistance.
(***END OF SPOILERS***)
I reserved the chance to review this film a full year ago. I’ve had all that time to prepare myself, and in writing this, I only have moments to make the release day deadline. Often, I try to take notes while reviewing, but I knew I couldn’t here. I knew as soon as the film began, I would be struck by childlike wonder and absorbed into it all. Star Wars has always done that to me, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. So, I write this, attempting to be as objective as I can and offsetting any “fanboy” tendencies. I want to really knuckle down on whether or not this is good, great, or terrible. All that said, as the credits rolled at the end, I was honestly thrilled for so many reasons (many I won’t even attempt to hint at in this review). I’m thinking about scenes throughout the film now, and I’m ready to see it all again (and again and again).
I repeat, I’m trying to stay purely objective. Still, for several reasons, I believe we haven’t had a better Star Wars film since Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I’m not saying this is a perfect experience and the greatest film ever made, but I am saying that it’s been a long time since a Star Wars film had a message to say that didn’t somehow get lost in the whiz-bang of it all. This film wants you to pay attention, as it is meticulously plotted and assumes you’re paying attention to the details.
The prequel trilogy, with all of its faults, effectively showed the mutation of democracy into fascism over time (some might say laboriously so with broad strokes). Still, those films lacked certain qualities that made the original films what they were, so those accomplishments of the story get lost in talks of lackluster acting or too much CGI. On the flip-side, many essays over many years have been written in examination of the original films. Despite their lofty position even in my own mind and heart, one could even say of them that consideration of the “right and wrong” of the Empire/Rebellion wasn’t so much explained as it was purely given over to audience assumption. With Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), for better or worse, we get thrown back into the universe after time away on a “safe and familiar” journey that honestly didn’t introduce much in the way of understanding the conflict that arose in the ashes of the Empire.
In Rogue One, we get to see personal motivations amidst the galactic conflict. We see the stakes at play, and when a character desires to just live outside of the conflict in complete apathy, we know why. In the war rooms, command decks, on the streets, and in hidden bases, we see what makes these fighters tick and take up arms. While the universe has seemingly appeared binary in the battle in all films, here, we are shown that inner squabbles insure that each front is hardly unified.
Beyond the soldiers and officers, we see that the Death Star itself is constructed of more than just metal. It is built on the framework of personal pride, intimidation, and for one maker, even as an act of love amidst begrudging duty. The Force Awakens doubled down on Nazi parallels with the First Order in a visual sense, but in Rogue One, we are treated to see the complications that duty and service create for those tasked in building such destructive forces. Not all “villains” should be assumed as evil for evil’s sake, as some are victims to circumstance. Others are fueled by compulsions to which we might relate, if we were in their shoes. A tale such as this is important to ponder in politically divisive times, such as those we live in now.
I must remark on how well war as a theme was conveyed here. Some will wish for more character exposition and detailing for all these new people we are introduced to, but war does not allow you to know everything about the people you serve alongside or even those you fight against. Trust is often needed between allies, even when it may not be earned or deserved. In conveying all of this, I must also add that viewers should not expect a “happy ending” here. If you want a movie where the guy gets the girl and all the heroes ride off in the sunset, this 100% isn’t that movie.
Despite that, I walked out absolutely enthralled and overjoyed, but a dear friend of mine watched with me and deeply disliked this film upon initial viewing. He is a huge Star Wars fan, and his dislike of it in no way discredits his fandom. Many may not like this movie, even deeply so, and I can fully understand why. It’s not a case where someone “just didn’t get it”, but it is, I believe, a fundamental problem that certain people will have with the story being told here. This is all dark and murky stuff on display, beyond just the aesthetics, and there is no getting around it. There is no black and white morality on display here with clear-cut good guys and bad guys. No, just like the Death Star looms gray over all, so does this movie.
You will see familiar characters that trailers have shown or alluded to and characters that they have not. You will hear shout-outs and visual cues in Rogue One to prior films, comics, and also Star Wars: REBELS if you pay close attention. Realize, fans (and I know many are still sore over the retcon, post-Disney), that just as all Marvel films have benefited from a connected film universe, the newly condensed canon of Star Wars will prove its worth in the years to come. I witnessed so much of what I’ve read and seen in the past couple of years coalesce onscreen, making the film even more enjoyable.
By virtue of its place in the timeline of all things Star Wars and the particular story it tells, the filmmakers had practical challenges in storytelling going in that they not only surpassed, but broke new ground in doing so. If I say much more, I’ll be spoiling, and no one should have this experience spoiled for them. You may think you know what will happen here, but you won’t see it all coming. That’s exactly how it should be. Many could potentially see this film as disposable because it isn’t a “saga” film, but I daresay it isn’t. I found this film rewarding in ways that were only hinted at in the prequel trilogy’s closing moments.
After seeing George Lucas close it all out then with scene after scene of nostalgia-laced connective tissue (which I loved then and now), here, we get all that nostalgia goodness again, but played out more naturally throughout this entire film (with only a scene or two that felt too on the nose about it all). By film’s end, we are led right up to the beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), and it is an absolute thrill to see. Such a momentum is built in the closing moments that I cannot wait to see Rogue One at home on disc in a few months, followed by an immediate watch of the original film to witness the flow from one to the next.
To be honest, Gareth Edwards as director caused me to feel cautious months ago. I’ve only watched one of his films, Godzilla (2014), but while mildly enjoyable, it was largely forgettable to me. No need to worry here; his direction of this film has me anticipating whatever else comes for him in the future. This film, while reportedly earning George Lucas’ personal seal of approval, perfectly nails the feel of the original films.
It’s a flat-out gorgeous film, no denying, and that beauty is shown by a diversity of locales. While we do get the (expected at this point) desert locales (found here on the planet, Jedha), we also see habitats, both beautiful and welcoming, as well as dreary and foreboding. The beaches of the Imperial base on Scarif, in particular, are unlike anything we’ve yet seen in a Star Wars film. I don’t think any Star Wars film has had such a wide range of locales in one particular film. While spy films like those in the Bourne and Bond series are no stranger to sudden transitions between vastly different places in both title and landscape, Star Wars has never went for that motif until now.
In my opinion, it completely worked for this film, but I don’t personally want to see it used again in “saga films.” It is one of many things that helped give this film its own needed personality, alongside a difference in the typical opening. In addition to all those design choices, we get the regular “vanilla” Stormtroopers in this film, but alongside them, we see several unique variations on their armor throughout the film. Because of this, I felt the stakes raised for the battles, so mission accomplished.
Another distinct flavor for Rogue One is the music. Michael Giacchino is the first to compose a Star Wars film besides the incredible John Williams, and despite the huge shadow of greatness before him, I think Giacchino mostly delivered. Early on, there were some swells in the music that felt a little off to me, but I can respect him attempting to evoke Williams alongside his own new choices, rather than merely mimicking him. It all felt like Star Wars, even as it kept itself unique to this film.
If you like battles on land and in space, get ready for some of the best yet seen. My mouth was gaping during most of the third act battles, and I think I won’t be alone in that sentiment. It really raises the stakes for future films. The pacing of the film was great. At no point was I looking for the end.
If I have a deep criticism, it’s that our villain, Krennic, wasn’t fully given as much to do as I would have hoped. Vader and others in the Empire hit hard, but Mendelsohn, an incredibly talented personal favorite of mine, just doesn’t get to shine as much as he could have. Often, he is placed amongst titans in this mythos, as the picture below shows. Yet, when Krennic does get to speak alone and take center stage, he absolutely delivers. I know some critics have praised Felicity Jones, while others have said she should have connected more with audiences. I think she and the cast as a whole really inhabit the characters very well. I felt for each and connected with each in their journey together. Alan Tudyk is perfection as K-2SO, and he and others make the film far funnier than I ever expected coming into it all.
To close, I think Rogue One works on many levels. It’s truly a standalone tale that works from beginning to end in service to its own plot, as a tale showing the personal stories behind warfare and that hearts, dark and light, are found on both sides of the line drawn by conflict. On another level, I think it truly does what many hoped the prequels would have done better: continue the spirit of the original films. Here, the material of what predates it in both sets of trilogies is enhanced by what is presented, and it is done so masterfully. If there were never another “connective” movie made in the period between them, all would be well with what this film does right to bridge the two. Viewed alongside Star Wars: REBELS and the Marvel comics, all is bettered as a result. I eagerly await more “standalone” tales, if this film is any indication of their possibilities and the bar of excellence set in quality.
+ Captures the feel of the original trilogy perfectly + Breaks new ground with surprising moments best left unspoiled + Proves that "non-saga" films can work well in the Star Wars Universe
- Some characters feel underutilized - Music & stylistic choices may not be for everyone - Dark & violent story may be too much for some
The Bottom Line
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story proves masterfully that the Star Wars universe is bigger than just Jedi and Skywalkers. An engrossing tale of war showing the hearts of those who fight it, fans of all ages are likely to find a resonant story worth telling.