To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t amped up about Rogue One. Not even after how much I loved The Force Awakens. I had a confidence in the production company’s ability to make a Star Wars film I lacked after the prequels, but I want to see the movie move forward. It’s hard to get excited about any prequel. And my biggest complaint about The Force Awakens is that it is too derivative—so I really don’t want to watch another movie about a Death Star. And the trailers told us little beyond what we already knew—it was about how the rebels got their hands on the plans for the Death Star—and that Jyn Erso has an annoying British accent. But fate conspired to make it easy for me to catch it a few days after release. I’m very glad I did.
The basic point of the plot—that Rogue One is about how the rebels got their hands on the plans for the Death Star—is already out there. So out of fear of the spoiler police, I will keep my exposition as terse as possible. The movie opens with an imperial officer retrieving Jyn’s father, Galen Erso, from hiding. Child-Jyn has to watch her mother murdered and her father taken. She is rescued from hiding by radical rebel Saw Gerrera (this is Forest Whitaker’s character). But that doesn’t last; nor is it her entrée into the Rebellion. Well, it is, of a sorts. The rebels need something Gerrera has, but the schism between the main Rebellion and Gerrera’s group is so deep they think they need Jyn to broker a détente. So Jyn gets sucked into the orbit of the Rebellion, and picks up a motley crew including Rebellion intelligence officer Cassian, droid K-2SO, members of a Jedi-related religious order Chirrut and Baze, and pilot Bodhi.
It truly is a motley crew. There is no one as badass as Luke or Rey or Poe Dameron. No one as cool as Han Solo. No one as strong-willed or important as Leia. It works because it is the sort of movie that works with a motley, ensemble cast. Albeit not quite the sort I thought.
I walked into Rogue One thinking it was a heist movie. Or I would have, had I not read a few early reviews. But that was still my basic framing. It is something very different. Rogue One is a war movie.
It isn’t just a war movie. It’s a very good war movie. Both in execution and in spirit. Hollywood tends to churn out a lot of awful war movies because war is one of many things beyond Hollywood’s basic comprehension. One of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings will always be great but will never be trendy is that Tolkien understood that not only will there come a time during which man will be asked to lay down his life to thwart evil, but that it may be in vain and even so—especially so—it captures man at his greatest. Rogue One understands that sacrifice is necessary, and that that sacrifice is worth it.
Making a war movie—as opposed to a movie with war in it and in the title—has consequences for the filmmaking. It has consequences for the characters, as mentioned. It has consequences for the action. Star Wars has always had plenty of that, and plenty of casualties, presumably, but the violence has largely been stylized and sanitized. The violence in Rogue One is visceral and tactile in a way it has never been in the other movies. Especially in the third act, during which the bloody price for every figurative inch is driven home. This comes at a cost; Rogue One is the first Star Wars film you can’t show to your kids (the prequels are films that you wouldn’t show to your kids). It has consequences for the visual storytelling. Strip out the AT-ATs and the battle at the end wouldn’t look so out of place in any number of war movies. An ambush in Jedha City wouldn’t look out of place in Blackhawk Down or a movie set in Iraq (it gets a bit heavy handed here—everything about the setting screams Middle East, right down to the name (Jeddah City is a port in Saudi Arabia)). There is much to be said for branching out like this if you’re building a huge movie universe (Marvel making the Winter Soldier as a spy thriller being the best example), but Rogue One feels a bit at odds with the other movies because of it.
Feel is especially important because Rogue One is so temporally close to Star Wars (in fact it ends rights as Star Wars begins). There is an atmospheric tension, but the filmmakers handle the visual side extremely well. Where given leeway, they create interesting new visuals that don’t jar with previous canon (the prequels were really bad about this). But they also keep to the existing visuals where necessary. And they do so unobtrusively. Rewatching Star Wars directly afterward, I realized I missed a lot during Rogue One. There are a lot of references to the other movies, but as a rule they are done as subtly and unobtrusively as possible. E.g., we hear Drewe Henley’s distinctive voice checking in as red leader. Jyn’s “rebellions are built on hope” line, so jarring in the trailer, is at the end of a very good speech, and ties in with the last line of the movie and the “title” of the next chronologically (there, I almost said it).
The primary villain—Orson Krennic—is less effective as an antagonist than as a put-upon project manager navigating imperial politics.
I’ve only seen Rogue One once (and kind of doubt I will see it again in theaters). It remains to be seen how it will hold up to repeated viewings. The tonal differences may prove more feature than bug in the future. It doesn’t lay hard on the feels of the original trilogy like The Force Awakens does, sticking instead to organic emotion. I suspect those emotional beats will build on successive viewings. It allays one of my biggest concerns about The Force Awakens. Rogue One suggests the filmmakers understand the heart of Star Wars is better placed in family and heroism rather than directly in the Skywalkers. The final battle—especially the part of it that took place in space—is the truly breathtaking. The sort of thing that Star Wars has always implicitly promised but only now delivered.
And so I stand not only excited for the new trilogy but excited for the anthology stories as well. Job well done.