It’s the holiday season and you know what that means… Star Wars! It’s hard to believe there’s already a new Star Wars movie hitting theaters, and it’s still kind of surreal that we’ll see a new one every year for the foreseeable future. This one crept up on me. My internal clock is used to waiting much longer to visit the ‘galaxy far, far away’ and I employ an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to new Star Wars movies to avoid being tempted to read articles or watch trailers that might spoil something. As with any movie, I like to go in completely blind and the only thing I knew before Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is that it takes place immediately before the original film in the franchise, Star Wars (1977). This review has light plot details and some spoilers. The spoilers are clearly marked and easily avoidable.
As a lifetime fan of these films, a new Star Wars movie is always an undeniably thrilling experience, but I was more curious than excited for Rogue One. After all, it is the first of its kind; a standalone film from the Star Wars universe — an anthology film — not an officially numbered ‘Episode.’ It’s the first Star Wars movie to start without the iconic yellow crawl (good choice, save the crawls for the official episodes) and except for a few familiar faces in small roles, the movie is mostly comprised of new characters. There are no lightsaber-wielding heroes in this film, but it is unmistakably a Star Wars movie and I had a blast watching it. Rogue One has its flaws (there’s one particularly jarring misstep), but for the most part they’re minor and there is much to love about director Gareth Edward’s addition to the saga.
The plot of Rogue One is briefly described in the crawl that opens the original Star Wars (now officially titled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope):
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”
This is a ‘story behind the story’ story; a heroic tale of the Rebels who came before and laid the groundwork that made the eventual mission to destroy the Death Star possible. Danish star, Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt, Casino Royale) plays Galen Erso, the man who designed the weapon of mass destruction. Australian gem, Ben Mendolsohn (Animal Kingdom, The Place Beyond the Pines) plays Weapons Director Orson Krennic, the man who kidnaps Erso and forces him to build the giant mobile space station that has the deadly ability to disintegrate entire planets. The casting is aces; these are actor’s actors and they excel in their roles. English actress, Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) carries the film as Galen Erso’s resilient daughter, Jyn. When they come for her family, she avoids being abducted and survives with her father’s friend, Rebel extremist, Saw Gerrera (played with gusto by Forest Whitaker). Mexican stud, Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) plays Rebel captain/spy Cassian Andor, and Hong Kong action star, Donnie Yen (Ip Man) plays Chirrut Îmwe, a blind, spiritual warrior-monk who is a strong believer in the Force and the Jedi way. Chinese writer/director/actor, Jiang Wen (Red Sorghum) plays his friend, partner, and devoted protector, Baze Malbus, a freelance assassin. British actor, Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, The Night Of) plays Bodhi Rook, a former pilot of the Galactic Empire, and Alan Tudyk (Firefly) is the comic relief. He voices everybody’s soon-to-be new favorite character, K-2SO, a droid of the Galactic Empire that’s been reprogrammed by the Rebel Alliance, and as a result says whatever is on his mind with no filter. K-2 is as funny as BB-8 is endearing.
Rogue One‘s tone differs from the light, Saturday matinee feel of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It feels weightier, like there’s more on the line, which is impressive since the viewer pretty much knows how it ends. I found it to be visually superior to its predecessor. Both the visual effects and the set design are well done, and Gareth Edward’s cinematic style is apparent from the opening scene with Mendolsohn’s Orson Krennic descending on Mikkelson’s Erso in grand fashion. Parts of Rogue One really feel like the original trilogy and the movie made me want to dwell in that world long after the film ended. I watched The Force Awakens afterwards to try and recapture the feeling of the Rogue One screening and it didn’t work, so I put on the original trilogy. A New Hope is the logical followup anyways and it helped provide the fix I was after. (Also, The Empire Strikes Back continues to amaze after all these years. What a movie…)
I can’t wait to see Rogue One again. The first half is filled with so much planet hopping and so many character introductions at such a rapid clip that some of it is a blur (it suffers a bit due to the compression of fitting so much in), but by the end, the mission and the characters are clear, and the film manages to build a good deal of suspense. There are Easter egg’s galore and the movie is heavy on fan service. Some of the nods are more obvious than others (blue milk) and some will only be noticed by die-hard fans (actualization of old Ralph McQuarrie concept drawings). For the most part, it’s all in good fun and several of the references elicited applause from the crowd. I’m personally not a fan of this much fan service, but it is the Disney way (just look at the Marvel franchise…).
Michael Giacchino’s score is exceptional. John Williams’ music has always been the glue that bonds Star Wars movies together. It identifies them and elevates them to another level. Giacchino’s score is true to Williams’ sound with strings and big Star Wars brass. It’s bombastic and urgent. It really picks up at the end of the movie and it’s at its best when the movie is at its best. This is Giacchino doing Williams doing Star Wars and it sounds classic. Not bad for a score that was put together in a mere 4 weeks without any prep time (for the sake of comparison, John Williams usually had 12 weeks and lots of prep time). Giacchino stepped in after the original composer, Alexadre Desplat bowed out, apparently due to ‘scheduling conflicts’ caused by Rogue One‘s re-shoots. Giacchino uses Williams’ familiar themes sparingly, but effectively. I look forward to watching the film again and focusing more on the specific themes used (old and new) and the subtleties of the music.
***Spoilers in the paragraphs below. Scroll past the next 2 pictures to avoid spoilers.***
Not everyone will agree with me on this, but Rogue One‘s biggest misstep is the resuscitation of classic Star Wars characters through CGI. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. The technology just isn’t there yet. Let’s be honest, both Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia (Leia especially) look a mess. They were disgusting blemishes on an otherwise solid movie. I’ll admit, there’s a thrill that comes with seeing Tarkin back on the screen (even if its a strange semblance of him), but the novelty of it doesn’t make it right. There are moral complexities to be considered, and while some will think it’s no big deal, I think it’s pretty messed up to take a man that’s been deceased for over 20 years and use his image in this nature. I’m sure everything is legally sound and the family signed off on it or whatever, but still, doesn’t feel right. Leia is a bit different since Carrie Fisher is still alive and she can give her consent, but still, her digital counterpart looked downright silly. The prequels suffered from embracing technology that just wasn’t there yet instead of relying on classic filmmaking techniques to tell the story, and I think these digital characters were jarring, unnecessary, and in Tarkin’s case, potentially unethical.
Darth Vader’s return to the big screen (voiced by James Earl Jones) was amazing. I thought Vader was used just the right amount and I love that he saw some action. His presence, along with the visual aesthetics reminiscent of the original trilogy, really gave me that old school Star Wars feeling. Most impressive.
***End Spoilers. You’re entering a safe space.***
So how does Rogue One stack up against the other Star Wars films?
It’s a natural thing to compare a new Star Wars film to the other films in the franchise, but I personally find it difficult to rank a movie I’ve seen one time against movies I’ve seen dozens of times and know inside and out. A lot of folks are declaring Rogue One the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, and while I liked it quite a bit, I’m not ready to put it over any of the films in the original trilogy. I certainly liked it more than the prequels, and after one viewing I’d rank it higher than The Force Awakens (my TFA review), but I seriously doubt I’ll ever like it more than Return of the Jedi (my least favorite film from the original trilogy). Time will tell.
The fact that it’s even being compared to the original trilogy is a complement of the highest order and a credit to Gareth Edwards, the talented international cast, and everybody involved. Rogue One succeeds in recreating that good ol’ Star Wars magic and fans are in for a treat. The Force is strong with this one.
4 out of 5 Nerdskulls
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is now playing in IMAX 3D, 3D, and 2D.
Sadly only 13 theaters in the US have the 70mm IMAX 2D option.
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