So, Rogue One - what is there to say about you? My decision to post this review at such a late time after your release is only in part due to a certain thing called Christmas happening, and the possibility of those more cynical viewing its publication in the wake of a certain Star Wars legend’s passing (RIP Carrie Fisher) as rather opportunistic. There is another more pressing reason for why haven’t written this until now, and it’s because I simply don’t know what to make of you. The avid Star Wars fan in me considers you a triumph, a wonderful extension that most critical part of the Star Wars timeline whose ideas enhance rather than confuse the setting of your very first entry, 1977’s A New Hope. The regular film goer in me though considers you a brittle, if entertaining mess; an incoherent bumble of loosely-strung plot points that only justify themselves with a 40-minute battle of special effects and Lucasfilm magic for a climax. Perhaps you’re both and perhaps that’s reason alone to recommend you, warts and all. But I certainly hope that the future of your franchise, under Disney’s over-arching control, results in movies that can be celebrated for their overall quality, rather than their ability to satisfy fan fulfilments. Otherwise the years to come may us once again celebrating just the original trilogy, and discarding these modern efforts just like we did with the Phantom Menace, et al.
The best thing to say about this film though is that, on a superficial level at least, it is still a Star Wars movie. It brings all the regular ingredients one would demand from such; brave, courageous heroes (or heroines in this case) standing against impossible odds, Death Stars looming over helpless planets, blaster duels, epic space battles and that most important ingredient of all - stormtroopers flailing like ragdolls as explosions detonate around them.
The only thing it doesn’t have is Jedi, but that’s fine - the on-screen return of one particular Sith Lord caters for this absence, and this isn’t that kind of story anyway. Rather, Rogue One tells the one tale that long-avid fans of the franchise have wanted to see above all others; the story of how those cunning Rebels got their mitts on the first Death Star plans.You know - that one event that enabled them to blow up said Death Star in A New Hope, the movie that started it all way back in 1977. It’s a piece of lore that fans have fiercely debated over since that time as well, so it’s a fandom milestone in itself to see it come to the silver screen at last.
There is a major problem though - much of the movie’s opening half spends a concerning amount of time scrabbling in the dust thrown up by its own rushed, haphazard writing. It introduces a multitude of potentially great characters, and then leaves to contend with a foolhardy, knee-jerk script. Ultimately this wide cast, all of which are more than worthy to be part of the Star Wars narrative, and the surprising - if fabricated - return of some of the series’ old faces, do keep Rogue One on track to a wonderful, if tragic ending. But it’s an uncertain ride for a lot of the opening - one that doesn’t always promise the satisfying conclusion that eventually results
A lot of these sloppy moments also arise from the ambitious task that Rogue One finds itself employed with: attempting to divulge a long-speculated side-story originally dreamt up long before the age of digital filming and technical modernity, and keeping it as a believable prelude to a timeline that has only been sketched out by the original trilogy. Where The Force Awakens could afford to build its story on old foundations - and did so with more than a constant nod of tribute to the early movies - Rogue One finds itself taking on the groundwork from before those foundations have even been filled in. Given that its ‘sequel’ is a film almost 40 years older than itself, achieving such credibility is no easy task. So it attempts to do so by pretending, at least in the beginning, by assuming A New Hope doesn’t even exist. Instead of constantly referencing characters or elements present in that movie, it instead opts to fling the viewer from one completely brand new location to the next, introducing a new character and some early exposition before flipping the scene again. It’s a bold move - one that should be welcomed given how often Force Awakens played it safe - but it’s also one that leads to its uneven opening acts.
The introduction of Rogue One’s female lead character, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is a brief one - as the estranged daughter of Imperial research scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), we barely get to understand the reasons behind the childhood separation from her parents (long story short, Galen is forcedly apprehended by ruthless Imperial weapons commander Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to begin work on building the Death Star - a confrontation that also results in the death of Jyn’s mother, Lyra (Valene Kane)) before we next see the older, ‘current’ version of herself being liberated from an Imperial prison convoy by the Rebel Alliance. Despite being little more than one of the Empire’s many imprisoned dissenters, the Rebels want her for a mission - to locate a person of interest for them on the desert planet of Jedha. This individual, a defected Tie-Fighter pilot by the name of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), has some sensitive information regarding the latest weapons development the Empire is partaking on. The problem is that they can’t exactly reach him to find what these partakings are - he’s being held captive by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a freedom fighter on the planet Jedha whose own ideas for resisting the Empire are too extreme even for the Rebels to endorse him. Gerrera is also of special interest to Jyn herself - in the wake of her losing her parents, Gerrera was the very man entrusted by her father to take on the role of guardian. Under his tutelage, Jyn was taught everything there was to know about survival under the shadow of Imperial oppression - though somewhere along the way, even he abandoned her to captivity under the Empire. With her connections to Gerrera, Jyn is very much a critical component in the Rebels’ urgent need for intelligence on the mysterious weapon the Imperials are developing. And perhaps, in a typically film-worthy development of convenient personal motive, she too can get answers from Gerrera on his desertion of her - maybe even get closure on the whereabouts of her father too.
Joining a team of Rebel agents led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO, a former Imperial enforcer droid re-programmed by Andor himself to serve the Rebel cause (voiced by Alan Tudyk), they embark for Jedha and the film’s actual story begins in earnest. All in all, it’s a pretty breathless opening 20 minutes that all of this background is crammed into, and the characters themselves are given similarly brief exposure. By the time this team reaches the desert planet of Jedha - and their mission to eventually discover the Death Star plans kicks off - all that is established about them are a few token personality traits. We know that Jyn is tough beyond her years having lived a life in an underworld flourishing in the shadows of an expanding Empire. Andor meanwhile is your standard spy in a galaxy, far, far away - handy with both blaster and archetypal one liners, if little else. K-2SO is the English-accented, dryly sarcastic comedy element of the movie, whose re-wiring of both his function and allegiances has left him without a filter to stop him from being markedly candid to anyone in his presence. They’re all rogues, that’s for sure - but that’s pretty much it. And the fact that Rogue One doesn’t really give us much more only serves to further highlight just how keen it is to hurriedly set itself up so it can get to the stuff it really wants to have fun with.
It starts to have this fun with Jedha itself - an Imperial-occupied desert planet, the kind of setting that appears an awful lot in Star Wars movies. Thankfully, Jedha does manage to stand out from the Tatooines and the Jakkus that Star Wars has already waxed about, mostly because of it being used as a canvas for Lucasfilm to flesh out some additional detail and colour for this part of the Star Wars timeline. Its capital, NiJedha, teems with a more mystical atmosphere than the mongrel backwater charms of Mos Eisley, the Tatooine spaceport that much of New Hope’s opening story took place in. It’s also the very first place that we start to see how Rogue One attempts to extend its universe, and add some nuances and depth to elements present in the later movies that are genuinely intriguing. As mentioned, no Jedi Knights set foot anywhere in this movie (after all, there weren’t any around - at least not in plain sight). But there is the presence of the Force the integral part of a religion, as showed by blind warrior-preacher character Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a later ally to the Rebels’ mission, who makes his first appearance here as a Guardian of the Whills, a religious order in bondage to the Force while ignoring its ‘light’ and ‘dark’ sides. Both he and the inhabitants of the city’s markets (a typical curious array of standard Star Wars alien ‘extras’) however are kept in line by Imperial stormtroopers, rolling through the dusty streets in armored vehicles (read: tanks. The Empire has tanks). All in all, NiJedha feels like an exciting new corner of the Star Wars realm that we’ve never seen, but was always there - a visual melting pot of new, creative ideas for the franchise emerging out of old ones. Of course, it does inevitably become the setting to a franchise-typical series of blaster gunfights (that still haven’t lost their fun), but both Jedha and the scenes upon it are a great summary of Rogue One’s role in this timeline - one part side-story, other part window to the deeper, wider, equally fascinating landscape that Star Wars’ original trilogy later plays out on.
And then there is the Empire too - that most critical of Star Wars antagonists, who are going through a very critical point in their quest for galactic power: getting the first Death Star up and running. Darth Vader’s much-hyped return to screen is a welcome one (although tempered by the age of his inseparable voice actor, James Earl Jones) but he is only a bit-part player in the struggle for power that his fellow commanders are engaging in at the top of the Empire’s rank and order.
Ben Mendelsohn as Director Krennic, whose character is overseeing the very development of the Death Star itself, is very much your typical Imperial high ranker - snide, tyrannical and prone to the odd rant. But he more than meets his match - as does his own side-plot - in the emergence of his rival for command over the space weapon, a certain Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry with the appearance of a CGI-generated Peter Cushing). Keen followers of the saga know how this tete-a-tete ends, but it is the nature of Cushing’s computer-assisted appearance - more Polar Express than Krennic’s polar opposite - that defines their political duel. Frankly, the CG involved is convincing only when Tarkin isn’t speaking - both mouth movement and gesture when he is bring more than the odd sense of uncanniness. Again, it’s a risk that Rogue One takes with respectable abandon, but it’s also one for which the tech just isn’t quite there yet. It’s obviously meant to enhance what is actually an important part of the Death Star’s origins within the entire saga, but only serves to undermine it - a brutally disappointing outcome considering how integral it is to Rogue One’s story as a whole.
Ideas may come and go with varying success throughout Rogue One’s daring attempt to inject the Star Wars story with some modern creativity, but the script’s problems, particularly with its inability to provide sustinent dialogue to help its characters stand out, fail to dissipate from start to finish. The plot continues to dart from one scene to another, one foreign terrain to the next, at a pace that the acting talent never seems to catch up with. Diego Luna never manages to settle in his role as Captain Andor, failing to offer him enough desperately needed charisma to go with the screen time, witty remarks and potentially interesting moral grayness that the Rebel mission head carries with him. As Saw Gerrera, Forest Whitaker similarly suffers from a lack of steady pace, turning up only to come off as a rambling loose cannon whose eccentricities are detached from the struggle against the Empire his character is supposed to be fighting against - before disappearing from the movie for good. The lack of focus in both of these characters however is more than compensated for by those who are able to excel outside the boundaries of this careless writing - as Chirrut, Donnie Yen brings both the fun and the badass-ery to his sightless, staff-wielding, mantra-reciting priest persona. But his friendship with fellow Guardian of the Whills member Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) is a particularly enjoyable element, with Baze’s penchant for answering Imperial oppression with a blaster rifle being in a complete contrast to Chirrut’s sense for spiritual struggle. Their odd couple chemistry almost seems defiant in the midst of how little time the film gives for inter-personal relationships to develop between its cast, but it certainly one of the movie’s highlights - and despite what some online commentators may tell you, takes on the model of a Waiting for Godot-esque old friendship, rather than anything romantic.
But above all else, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso is the one who keeps us watching despite the numerous potholes prevalent throughout the plot. Though she initially suffers from the same lack of urgent energy that her screen opposite (if in mission only) Luna is unable to shake off, Jones is soon able to turn Jyn into a character of genuine grit and determination - those classic hallmarks of the modern Disney heroine. Even if she does have her own irritating ‘Disney’ moment - in the film’s climax she insists on dragging her team to planet Scarif, home of the Death Star plans, on a whim ‘to do what’s right’ while Rebel Alliance dignitaries squabble with each other on what to do about the Empire’s new weapon - Jyn is most definitely the kind of Rebel on which legendary tales of daring missions should be told, even if the tale itself is written as awkwardly as this one.
It is also the final, climactic scenes upon the tropical planet of Scarif itself that ultimately deliver the promise that Rogue One’s trailers hinted at in the build-up to its release. The 40-minute final act of this most fabled of heists is simply an unstoppable, relentless battle sequence that teases more varieties of Stormtroopers that anyone could imagine, the standard thrill of X-Wing dogfights with Imperial TIE squadrons (that also include some never-before-seen ships) and the kind of Rebel ground assault that not even Return of the Jedi’s Endor could deliver on. It is simply breath-taking, and also surprisingly heart-breaking; it may only be until you get to this point that you realise how much you cared about this ragtag group of Alliance operatives, even if the film refuses to give them the depth they’re due. Throw on a bunch of additional unexpected appearances from original trilogy characters, a sensational action scene showing Vader at his most invincibly ruthless, and an ending that literally urges you to stick on A New Hope once you’re back from the theater, and Rogue One, against all the odds, ends up doing the job it’s sent out to do. Just like its Rebel protagonists in fact (and that’s not a spoiler BTW).
It’s still, nonetheless, an inconsistent whole - one with more than a few script-induced mysteries (why exactly does Director Krennic insist on addressing his Imperial subordinates on a landing pad in the pouring rain? And why does Saw Gerrera need a multi-tentacled, mind-stealing creature to extract information from his captives?). Overall, it isn’t better than The Force Awakens - but thanks to the brave creative decisions made to expand the Star Wars landscape, it’s definitely more interesting. It also requires some strong performances from key cast members to prevent its script from de-railing everything, and by and large it gets that. All in all, Rogue One adds up to being an imperfect Star Wars movie, but one that packs enough of the old spirit, and enough of the universe’s old characters, for the majority of its new ideas to flourish enough to be a worthwhile watch for any movie-goer.
And for the avid Star Wars like myself? Screw it, it’s Star Wars. Of course I’m going to watch it again.