Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story delivers the dark vision fans have been waiting for.
Spoiler Alert! The Death Star plans, so intensely pursued for the entirety of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, do in fact reach their proper destination, allowing Luke Skywalker to destroy the imposing monolithic super-weapon. (End of Spoiler)
But you knew that already - Rogue One is assuredly one Star Wars movie where a Death Star will not be destroyed.
Director Gareth Edwards, helming only his third feature film, delivers a bold, high stakes down-to-the-minute prequel. With this, far more than 2014's Godzilla, he has a blockbuster calling card for the ages. Of course, many are quick to point out the Star Wars franchise's track record when it comes to prequels. In this case, an entire movie is built around the notion of a macguffin making its way to a designated location that we know it will in fact reach, and how everything plays out from there.
It should be said, though, that this is the darkly toned Star Wars film that veteran fans have been clamoring for since the original prequel, The Phantom Menace, was announced a long time ago. For them, satisfaction is all but assured. There is moral complexity, conflicted characters, visceral combat and Stormtrooper deaths galore. Younger, newer fans' milage may vary. But this being a film of such quality, they will grow into it. Just as original fans grew into appreciating The Empire Strikes Back.
After the tight-lipped protection that all of fandom bestowed upon last year's resurrection of the Star Wars franchise, the hyper-managed yet miraculously satisfying The Force Awakens, it's kind of nice to be able to just blurt out how things go in the new one, and not have to worry about sending anyone into convulsions. (That said, fear not – the remainder of this review will dutifully be spoiler free. I would expect no less myself.)
Granted, there will always be those who dismiss an effort such as this merely as the latest and greatest in galactic shoe leather. But truth be told, Rogue One, as predictable as it may or may not be, nevertheless still has a few new surprises. Sure, it’s a song we all know. But there’s plenty of room in the arrangement to surprise us. (To make that analogy literal, Michael Giacchino's score, the first non-John Williams of the series, strikes the right chords, going familiar only in brief and proper moments.)
The underlying raison d'etre of Rogue One is that it's a different kind of film than any previous Star Wars movie. It must be said, though, that every Star Wars movie is unique unto itself, from a certain point of view. But until now, they've all been official "episodes"; that is, interrelated tales of the ever-troubled Skywalker family, each one in keeping with a rigidly followed stylistic template of screen-wipe scene transitions, John Williams music, and opening crawls. But Lucasfilm, now revitalized in their Disney takeover, has no intension of sticking strictly to the numbered episodes. In order to meet a quota of one new Star Wars movie each year for the foreseeable future, there must also be "stand-alone" entries. Rogue One is the first of numerous such proposed films.
At every turn, there's more sand, dirt and debris to dodge and dirty up our ragtag heroes. (To quote David Bowie, Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess!) It's the height of Imperial rule, meaning that the galaxy is at an all-time low point. The gleam and sharpness of the Old Republic is but a forgotten dream in this doom-laden, planet--hopping mission film. Numerous new (to us) planets and territories are visited, each one of them a desolate place, a war torn battleground. The characters are adorned in layered plates of pieced together armor and tricked-out goggles. If not for the perpetual (and, it must be said, quite welcome) interjection of Star Wars iconography circa 1977, this could be mistaken for a space-faring Mad Max film.
Besides the usual British and American contingents, Rogue One makes pronounced inclusions of characters from previously lesser-seen Chinese, Mexican and Dutch corners of the galaxy. All work together in a spectacular effort to set the stage for A New Hope's more beloved if less diverse heroes. This is the tale of the freedom fighters forgotten by history, their sacrifices and struggles setting the stage for those whom time will, and in this case, already does remember.
Felicity Jones is the newest protagonist Jyn Erso, the second young brown-haired Caucasian female in a row to anchor the cast of a Star Wars film. That aside, there's no known connection between the rebellious and broken Erso and Daisy Ridley's budding would-be Jedi, Rey. Having been sent away as a young girl by her brilliant father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to dodge an attack on her remote home by the evil Imperial up-and-comer Orson Krennic (a seething Ben Mendelsohn), she hides and maintains a valuable object. Her family had gone into hiding so that Galen could avoid being forced to spearhead the construction of the Death Star. Yet, that's exactly what he's made to do.
After being raised a warrior by the enigmatic and mysterious Saw Gerrera (whom originated on The Clone Wars animated series, and is played here by the great Forest Whitaker), Jyn sets out to learn the truth of the sins of her father. She is aided by several rebels of varying devotion to the Alliance itself, including sharpshooter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, in leading man form), a blind, Force sensitive martial arts master (Donnie Yen, touching and spectacular) and his heavily weaponized cohort Baze Malbus (a wild-haired and beefy Wen Jiang), and a former Imperial droid reprogrammed effectively for hilarious sarcasm (voice of Alan Tudyk; watch for a minor nod to Firefly). They are all terrific, more than worthy additions to this galaxy far, far away.
Not so far away are the realities of how muddied the waters of morality can get when combating an oppressor such as the Empire. A shoot-first/ask-questions-later mentality can arise from desperation, and once-fundamental tenants of any organized rebellion, such as hope and listening to reason become kneejerkingly dismissive. Rogue One is candid in its portrayal of a flawed and difficult Rebel Alliance. Although it is led by familiar faces Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), and stationed in the established Yavin 4 secret base (recreated to a tee), this Rebel Alliance is not always easy to root for. This courageous depiction is much to the film's credit. Good and evil remain, but basic interactions with them are humanly cloudy as ever. This aspect of Rogue One is just one such factor that places it alongside of 2005's Revenge of the Sith in terms of dark, less kid friendly visions of Star Wars.
Just as long-lingering, nitpicked details of George Lucas' original 1977 film are finally addressed and laid to rest, Rogue One also releases a whole host of new debate fodder into the universe, just to restore balance. Because, if everything were all perfectly explained and crystal clear, it just wouldn't be the Star Wars we love so much.
But Rogue One's got it where it counts: The battle scenes, when they finally do roll around, are spectacular. Several cameos by past characters are impressive, most impressive. And the tactile quality of the film never feels like anything less than returning home again. Don't expect it to mesh perfectly with the stylistic template of all previous entires, but that's the point: This is the stand-alone debut; the rogue one. And a welcome first of many.