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In many ways, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feels like a historical drama, a re-enactment of something so well known and understood, it seems like a part of our own past. For forty years, the legacy of the Star Wars franchise has been ingrained in the lives of generations who have grown up with the characters and adventures, they themselves so pronounced and beloved, they are some, if not the most beloved in all cinema. As the series continues to expand and find new worlds to explore and tie old threads to new ones, gaps in the tales are slowly being filled, and with this epic operatic first in a planned anthology, there is much to celebrate, even while it stumbles a bit on the journey to the next chapter.
As we all know, the rebels in Episode 1: A New Hope destroyed the Empire’s first Death Star because the rebels had stolen the plans and exploited a weakness. It was a significant but unseen event in that chapter’s plot, and now, that story finally gets told. It follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the lone daughter of an Imperial scientist and engineer named Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the man behind the weapon. We discover that he has lost his faith in the Emperor and fled the Death Star, though he is eventually found by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a high ranking official overseeing construction who murders Galen’s wife but can’t find the very young Jyn, who Galen sent into hiding.
Years later, now an adult, she is a troublemaker, less concerned with the fight for freedom than she is with herself (You can’t see the signs of the Empire if you don’t look up, she proclaims), but becomes a member of a small gang of misfit rebel fighters at the urging of the Rebel Alliance, who know of her identity with hopes she can go and find her father and learn about the unseen but much-talked about Death Star. While the Rebels themselves are at odds over what to do, Jyn joins up with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel assassin, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior with enormous faith in the force and his companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a former Imperial pilot and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid. They lead a quad of volunteers on a dangerous mission to get the highly-secured plans and stop the Emperor. It’s now do or die.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, if anything, follows in the footsteps of last year’s comeback of sort for the franchise, delivering a rousing, well-made and action-packed experience that is full of familiarity but unique enough to stand on its own. While it’s hardly a challenging film and is far less experimental than Edward’s two previous releases, 2014’s Godzilla reboot and the under-seen but brilliant Monsters (2010), this predictable and slickly-produced on-rails movie is very well directed and builds to a truly exciting and often devastating third act that dares to do and go to places most franchises refuse. At last, a film that has consequences where lead characters are at the very mercy of the plot.
The thing that made the first three Star Wars films so memorable, aside from the visuals, was the highly-developed characters, something the second trilogy famously lacked, but saw a return of in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here too, we get some of that old flare again, with some well-cast actors who breath a lot of life in a script (by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) that has its weaknesses, especially in some of the earlier scene where the team slowly assembles. Jones is a solid choice, another Star Wars woman with great presence and leadership that is treated as such and nothing more. Jones is very good, desperate, motivated, and courageous, and lends herself greatly to the lore of the series.
The film can’t help but feel like it needs to further prop up the now iconic status of the old legendary characters though, especially with Darth Vader (voiced once again with spine-tingling glee by James Earl Jones), who is photographed like a demigod on a rock and roll stage with smoke and lighting. Yes, his brief scenes are impressive, but there’s little surprise or sense of awe about him in a Star Wars film anymore, even if he is baddass. Then there’s Grand Moff Tarkin, played in the first film by Peter Cushing, but, as the actor died in 1994, here is digitally created and while that technology has made huge leaps in recent years, there’s no getting around the obvious and it feels a little awkward. So to with an appearance by someone else in the final frames that especially now feels all the more a conflict of emotions.
What the film does best though is truly give the Rebel fight some serious depth, with a lengthy peek at a dark time in their struggle, the leadership in tatters and their own agenda often crossing the line of morality. We have the benefit of knowing the future as we watch these people plot for freedom, but it doesn’t lesson the experience as the conflict becomes much more “humanized” for lack of a better term. Sure, the film goes to excess with populating the screen with dozens upon dozens of different species and there is not much in understanding the real effects of the Empire’s reach, but the globe-hopping adventure doesn’t lack for trying in creating spectacular worlds in which they live and die for their cause.
This is a much more somber Star Wars film, with K-2SO naturally bringing the the only real humor to the show. That’s not a criticism of course. It’s good to get a grownup Star Wars. There was a young boy sitting nearby in the theater however who, after the lights came up, announced that it was scary at times, yet as he went on randomly talking with his father about what he’d seen, it reminded me of the joy and sense of wonder I felt the first time I saw Star Wars as a child. That’s the thing that makes a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away so special. It is a place of imagination that despite its flaws, is as timeless as the hearts and minds that keep it alive. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story carries the Force well into the next adventure.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn
Genre: Science Fiction