Gareth Edward’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story bases its entire narrative upon a single line of text in A New Hope’s opening scroll: “During [a] battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR…” And from that little bit of exposition, a film was born. Ultimately, Rogue One functions as a story about those who rebel and the sacrifices, both physical and psychological, they are forced to make.
The film opens with Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist forced to create a weapon for the Empire by Imperial bureaucrat Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). After his wife is murdered and his daughter, Jyn, flees to refuge, he is taken to create what we know will become the Death Star. We then flash fifteen years into the future and bump back into Jyn (Felicity Jones), now living as an apolitical fugitive. She is forced into assisting the Rebels with arranging a meeting with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, channeling Blue Velvet more than I ever thought possible in the Star Wars franchise), her now estranged adoptive father. She is accompanied by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel intelligence officer and his sarcastic, cynical robot, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Eventually, they find themselves joined by Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who has a crisis of conscience and defects to the Rebel side, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind man with a strong connection to the force, and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), his cynical, warrior companion. From there, Rogue One puts the “wars” back into Star Wars.
Watching this film opening night, surrounded by young children, I kept attempting to imagine what must their parents be thinking. You take your child to Disney’s latest Christmas blockbuster and instead you get The Dirty Dozen. This is by far the darkest entry in the Star Wars franchise, full of loss and solemnity. It’s obvious director Gareth Edwards enjoys playing the franchise’s sandbox, but I didn’t realize his sandbox would be made of Normandy’s beaches. It’s a world of morally ambiguous characters, who have done questionable deeds and have had to live with the consequences. There’s a point in the film in which Jyn is asked how she can tolerate seeing Imperial banners across the sky. She ambivalently responds, “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” Rogue One is about those who look up, those who learn to look up, and the cost of caring about a cause. It’s a world of difficult decisions.
I went in to Rogue One with some indifference. After all, it’s a prequel, and the Star Wars franchise doesn’t exactly have a sparkling reputation with such story attempts (insert your best Jar Jar Binks joke here). Also, I just didn’t feel as though the film was really necessary. Did we really need this story? I don’t know if the film is really essential, as the franchise could exist without this story addition (even if it does provide an answer as to why the Death Star is so easy to destroy), but I’m glad it exists. It’s a film that could have played it safe, been a bland straightforward, feel-good adventure, but instead takes risks left and right.
The film’s cast is refreshingly diverse, featuring Asian actors, a Hispanic actor, and a British-born actor of Pakistani descent. Also, like Force Awakens, there’s a female character at its center. Like Rey before her, this is Jyn’s journey. Jones is a compelling screen presence, imbuing Jyn with an inner strength and resolve that is present from her first scene. She carries herself like Ripley in the Alien franchise, and she makes her evolution from a character content to exist on the fringes to one who comes to believe, “Rebellions are built on hope” completely believable. Disney’s other major film franchise, the world of Marvel, is primarily a boy’s club. For now at least, Star Wars is comfortable with its feminine side. Between this film and last month’s Moana, young girls watching these films can see strong, capable characters able to save a culture and topple an Empire. Diego Luna, coupling a Han Solo- type ruthlessness with loyalty to a cause, makes for a compelling secondary lead, but singling out anyone feels unfair. Everyone in Jyn’s eventual posse is doing great work, making their scrappy band of misfits feel likable and well-defined. When the film enters into its climax, the stakes feel tangible and the chance for loss means something because both the film and the cast ensure we care about the characters. Ben Mendelsohn also creates an easy to despise villain, who is almost tantalizingly punchable.
Gareth Edwards does a brilliant job of marrying cutting edge CGI with the tangible feel of the original trilogy. He also succeeds in crafting a film that could have been a cynical cash-grab feel alive and vital. He does stumble slightly when the digital recreation a certain character (I won’t spoil it for you. You’ll know who I mean.), creating a character who embodies the uncanny valley problem that haunts The Polar Express, but this stumble is far from a deal breaker. It’s difficult to be too angry when he gets so much right. Rogue One brings itself into the world of Star Wars with guns drawn and the concept of sacrificing everything for the chance that others may succeed front and center. I wanted to resist it, but it broke every barrier I tried to erect against it. Yes, “rebellions are built on hope.” I’m happy to place my hope and faith in a franchise that can provide films like these.