A truly worthy entry in the “[Wo]men on a mission” subgenre of war film, Rogue One roars triumphantly into theaters as one of the very best Star Wars films ever made, even if it now seems clear why the studio was getting cold feet. Less kid friendly than any past episode of the storied franchise, this is a heavy affair, filled to the brim with loss and the oppressive threat of the Empire. It’s a war film, and in the tradition of the very best sci-fi and war cinema, it speaks potently [nay politically, despite what the studio heads are saying] to our own modern times. One sequence so clearly evoked the insurgencies of the Middle East I almost forgot this was a Star Wars movie… and of course our heroes ARE the insurgents. Rogue One goes to great lengths to add nuance and grey areas to our protagonists and their sacred Rebellion. Inherently political, this film bypasses all the much maligned “trade embargo” politics of the prequel trilogy by going “in the shit” with our characters and simply showing, not telling, how this war has ravaged their lives. “Good” characters will do bad things. “Good” characters will have selfish motivations, or be frightened into inaction, or become radicalized. It’s powerfully human and palpably relevant.
Rogue One handily conquers some of the many handicaps it had working against it. We all know the Rebellion gets the secret Death Star plans. Literally all of us know this in the same way we knew the Titanic was going to sink. And problematically, in a series filled with beloved characters, Rogue One is forced to introduce us to characters we haven’t been previously familiar with. Aside from the trailers and casting and directorial choices being spot on, Rogue One as a project had some questionable motives working against it. And it puts all those concerns to rest with its characterization, world building, and plot execution. Our leads are Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, and Diego Luna as Cassian Andor. They’re rock solid characters with arcs that keep the audience on their toes. Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO gets virtually all of the film’s laughs as Cassian’s right hand droid, but never even remotely feels like a C-3PO or Jar Jar re-hash. Perhaps most importantly of all, Hong Kong’s Donnie Yen absolutely steals the show as blind Force believer Chirrut Imwe along with his space-mini-gun-toting sighted friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang, whose Chinese output I’m largely unfamiliar with). Chirrut’s Force sensitivity makes him the spiritual heart of the film, and his blind martial arts serve to get this Kung Fu fans blood pumping the quickest out of all of the film’s thrills.
And thrills Rogue One contains in multitudes. I’ve already heard criticisms of sloppiness in the first two acts, as well as a general sense of “busyness”. Those might be valid concerns, though I didn’t feel them myself. Regardless of how one receives the first half of the film, the back half is a monstrously enormous set piece staged with a brilliant economy of scale balanced with potent character work. It’s a multi-pronged battle that couldn’t feel more Star Wars, while at the same time standing up against the great samurai showdowns or epic war sequences ever filmed.
Villain-wise, Ben Mendelsohn strikes an intimidating and conniving figure as Death Star Project Manager Director Krennic. But more thrilling is the presence of Darth Vader himself. Deep in my heart, I felt that the inclusion of Vader could have been a big mistake. The threat is gone. The saturation is real. We’ve been there and done that. Rogue One restores the awe and horror of Vader in his prime, and it does so with sparing screen time. His menace is truly awe-inspiring in a way I’ve probably never felt before, since Vader was a cultural icon since before I can remember.
Gareth Edwards (and, if rumors are to be believed, a vast committee of Disney execs) has crafted a Star Wars film that succeeds in every measurable way that matters. As a standalone film with zero requirements to stretch into a franchise in and of itself, Rogue One is free to play in Star Wars‘ considerable sandbox while giving us new characters to love, a renewed passion for the Rebellion, and a prequel that only expands the world of Star Wars rather than constrict it to one Skywalker family in a vast universe. It’s frankly a glorious and cynicism-free first entry in this planned “standalone” film series. While I’m aware that we’ll be getting a Star Wars film every single year for the rest of our lives, and that this will inevitably become a cynical endeavor (as I fear the Marvel MCU has become)… not today. Today we’ve got an emotionally gripping new Star Wars film that we get to love forever. We’ve got a potent and harsh war film to grapple with as we trudge into dark and unprecedented times as a nation. The call to trust in the Force hits close to home and feels more personal than ever before.
And I’m Out.