Star Wars means many things to many people. For me, the franchise is an integral part of the foundation upon which all my interests have been built. I spent years watching the original trilogy at least once a week, playing with the toys and video games (Shadows of the Empire remains one of my favorites), constructing the Lego sets, and writing stories of my own (nearly all about Boba Fett). I was and am obsessed with Star Wars.
In 2012, when I heard that Disney had purchased Star Wars from creator George Lucas and was planning to make their own films, I was skeptical. Unlike many, I do not harbor an intense hatred for the Star Wars prequels. I don’t even dislike them. I find the underlying story of Palpatine’s sabotage of the Republic interesting and I always enjoyed the tragic friendship between Anakin and Obi-wan Kenobi. Also, Darth Maul is undeniably cool. However, I understand where those films failed to capture the spirit of the originals. Last year’s The Force Awakens, however, banished any doubt I had about the saga films’ quality; it paid homage to the original trilogy while also managing to reorient itself onto a new and exciting path. Though I love that film and the rebirth it provided for the franchise, I think Rogue One has given me something even better: hope. A new hope, one might say, that we as an audience will get to explore the vast and glorious beauty that the Star Wars universe has to offer. That being said, here is why.
Rogue One is unlike any Star Wars film before it; not only because it is the first in a series of standalone films (the untitled Young Han Solo project will come out next in 2018), but because of its distinct tone. There is no swashbuckling sense of adventure here. This is a film about war and the cost of freedom from tyranny. Set just before Star Wars: Episode IV, the story follows Jyn Erso, a delinquent and drifter whose childhood was stolen from her by the Empire. Her father, Galen Erso, is a brilliant scientist specializing in Kyber crystal research and technology. The crystals powered the lightsabers of the Jedi and, consequently, serve as the power source for the Death Star’s planet-killing laser cannon. After a tragedy sees Galen thrust into the custody of the Empire, a young Jyn is spirited away by Rebel soldier/extremist Saw Gerrera.
Years later she is rescued from Imperial captivity by the Rebellion and given a task. Word has reached them that an Imperial pilot has defected and carries a message from her father. The only problem is that the pilot is currently in the custody of Saw Gerrera, who has since splintered from the Rebellion due to his extremist tendencies. The Rebels hope that Jyn and Saw’s former relationship will be enough to convince him to have an audience so that they may determine the validity of the pilot’s message. Faced with the possibility of seeing her father again and clearing his name – most of the Rebels think he is a genuine Imperial sympathizer – Jyn agrees to the task. Unfortunately, Orson Krennic, director of the Death Star program and the man who captured Galen in the first place, has also heard of the pilot’s defection and suspects Galen to be the cause. Events transpire, a team builds around Jyn, and the true stakes of Galen’s message are revealed: the newly operational Death Star has a weakness, one which is described in its plans. With time running out, Jyn and company form a last ditch effort to locate the plans for the Death Star before it’s too late.
Though you may know the end of the story, the greatest success of Rogue One is that that doesn’t matter. It’s an intense ride full of war and destruction. The stakes are real and palpable for the duration of the film. This is mainly because of the characters. You care about every one of them. Sure they are developed in broad strokes, but those strokes are calculated and effective. Jyn Erso, as played by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Like Crazy), is an incredible protagonist. She’s a person who’s been hurt deeply and repeatedly by life, but she’s a fighter, powered by her love for her father, and later, the idea at the heart of the Rebellion: hope. Seeing her transform from a grudging participant to a rebel with a real sense of agency is one of the best parts of the film. Felicity Jones’ exemplary acting elevates an already interesting character into someone who feels real and lived in; we’re only offered a glimpse of her life, but we care.
Jyn is assisted by Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna (Milk, Y Tu Mamá También). A lifelong Rebel, Cassian offers the audience a glimpse of the lengths to which even “one of the good guys” must go in order to fight the suffocating evil of the Empire. Like Jyn, Cassian is damaged, but Luna goes a long way to instill within Cassian a sense of duty and determination. The development of his relationship with Jyn is easily one of the highlights of the film, as they both come to teach each other about what it truly means to be a rebel.
Cassian’s partner is K-2SO played by Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Dodgeball), a reprogrammed Imperial security droid with a droll sense of humor and a tendency for stating unfortunate odds. Though K-2SO could have easily been relegated to comic relief, he thankfully avoids that role, instead serving as a stalwart companion just as likely to draw chuckles as fist pumps. Tudyk’s perfect comedic timing as well as his ability to imbue even the most monotone characters with emotional depth (he played Sonny in I, Robot as well) make K-2SO a standout in a film full of stand outs.
Rounding out the main cast are Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus, and Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe. Riz Ahmed, fresh off his Golden Globe nominated work in the HBO series The Night Before, plays the Imperial defector, Bodhi. A man with true knowledge of what it’s like to be a cog within the Imperial machine, Ahmed does a good job making Bodhi fearful, but not cowardly. He wants the galaxy to be a better place and it is upon his volition that this story begins. Perhaps the closest thing to an audience surrogate as this film gets, seeing Bodhi find his courage is a wonderful experience.
Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe are a team; Chirrut a blind, monk-like figure that appears to be Force-sensitive; Baze his gun-wielding protector. Though their backstory remains a mystery, it is their camaraderie that makes a lasting impression.
Chirrut’s spiritual encouragements are routinely negated by a gruff dose of reality from Baze, but it is clear that they care for one another. This is thanks to Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang’s tangible chemistry, which is a highlight of every scene they’re in together. Though more static in their arc than some of the other characters (and for good reason), Chirrut and Baze’s relationship with Jyn strikes its own tone and is just as compelling as the rest.
As you can see, I loved the main cast, and the supporting players are just as good. Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline, Killing Them Softly) is appropriately loathsome as Director Orson Krennic. A ruthless man of great ambition, Krennic’s arc is interesting in that it parallels Jyn’s, but also explores the dog-eat-dog nature of the Imperial infrastructure. His interactions with another Imperial character, who I will not name here for the sake of the reader, are tense and antagonistic, each statement threaded with barbs and disdain.
Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Doctor Strange) plays Galen Erso, Jyn’s father. I have written at length about the wonders of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting. Put simply, he is one of the finest actors we have today. He makes the most of his limited screen time as Galen, portraying him as a man wracked with guilt, yet full of love for his daughter. His actions are a final attempt at making peace with what he’s done and giving the galaxy a chance for a future without the Empire. There is an urgency to Mikkelsen here, a sense of doom (both personal and galactic) that makes Galen a standout in a film full of standouts.
(On a side note: Galen and Orson have a long and intriguing relationship before the events of this film, elucidated in the book Catalyst, by James Luceno. It is a riveting Star Wars book and a necessity for anyone wishing to explore the characters of this film further.)
Forest Whitaker (Arrival, The Last King of Scotland) recreates himself in the wheezing, heavily augmented form of Saw Gerrera. Too extreme for even the Rebellion, Rogue One finds Saw on the world of Jedha, leading his own personal splinter group of insurgents. Saw has clearly suffered a lot in his life and there’s a bit of madness in his eyes, but overall he is a person completely dedicated to the idea of the Rebellion and the Empire’s end. He is willing to sacrifice everything to see that done. Whitaker chose a distinct voice for this character, a wheezing, breathless voice that speaks to the extensive damage done to Saw’s body. I enjoyed it and found Whitaker mesmerizing. His time with Jyn in particular is powerful and an important step on her path toward heroism.
Besides the incredible cast, Rogue One is a triumph of style and design. The costuming and production design are unparalleled, harkening back the Ralph McQuarrie-ness of the originals while also adding a new dimension and flavor to the universe. The cinematography by Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty) is beautiful, yet retains a gritty, documentarian appeal which can also be credited to director Gareth Edwards. Known for the indie Monsters and his 2014 reboot of Godzilla, Edwards deftly makes the jump to mega blockbuster with Rogue One, creating an experience at once epic and intimate. It really is the “war film” that he spent so many months talking about. Kudos must also be given to composer Michael Giacchino (Lost, Star Trek: Beyond), who replaced Alexander Desplat at the last minute and reportedly completed the score in 4 ½ weeks (what?!). His work here is sumptuous and grand and, most importantly, original; it only just touches upon familiar themes, but in new and exciting ways.
Finally, we come to fan service. There are all manner of references in this film, but for the most part they appear in organic and pleasing ways. A pair of them surprised me so much I nearly jumped up in my seat. That’s the beauty of Star Wars. It is old and new. Sitting in a packed theatre tonight I saw hundreds of people of all sorts affected and moved by this film, joined together in joy at what they were witnessing, cheering just as hard for the familiar as they were for the new. That is the power of Star Wars and it is my supreme pleasure to say that Rogue One met and exceeded my expectations. I hope everyone goes out and supports this movie so that we may continue to explore the untold bounds this universe outside of the Skywalker saga; so that we’ll get that story about the Jedi Knights of the Old Republic, so that we can delve into the criminal underworld of Coruscant, and perhaps, just maybe, we’ll see the return of a certain Mandalorian bounty hunter with a T-shaped visor.
One can dream.
But Star Wars is the stuff of dreams; a far-ranging, science-fantasy epic that clearly has much more story to tell. Whatever that story is, I’ll be there.