Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn’t the best or worst of the franchise, but it’s a solid action movie in its own right. and a welcome departure from the established style and tone of the series that proves Disney are onto a winning formula with their anthological approach.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY IS PART OF THE CURRENT STAR WARS CANON. CHECK OUT THE TIMELINE.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is, indeed, a Star Wars story; although at first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it was something else entirely. Gone is the opening crawl. In its place you now get little title cards that crop up to announce the name of a new planet, like any of the good seedy espionage movies that this one is nakedly emulating. Out is the John Williams score, and in is a new, sound-alike offering from Michael Giacchino that constantly makes reference to it. No more cutesy scene transitions or that sweeping, majestic cinematography. Now we have the kind of handheld photography that makes you worry each explosion or errant laser bolt will spatter the lens with debris. It’s all the same, but it’s all different.
In many ways, it had to be. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the first standalone feature-film in the current Star Wars canon, and was, to take a cynical viewpoint, an experiment to see if Disney could get away with making different and original movies that were still as worthy (and, let’s be frank, bankable) as the label implies. So, while it’s still playing with all the blasters and X-Wings and Stormtroopers and the usual Star Wars toys, it’s also for the most part a straight-up action movie. The setting is sometime after the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith but before those of Episode IV: A New Hope. And the plot concerns how the Rebel Alliance got the plans to the Death Star – as well as why the planet-destroying battle station had such an easily-exploitable, fatal weakness in the first place.
To orchestrate the mission the Rebels call on a team of scoundrels too rebellious even for the Alliance. Acting as bait is a tough nomadic troublemaker, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who happens to be the estranged daughter of the engineer (Mads Mikkelsen) that the Empire is forcing to build the Death Star under the brutal direction of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Surrounding her, eventually, will be Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid buddy K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the hopelessly naïve Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and an odd pair comprised of a blind Force-sensitive martial arts wizard (Donnie Yen) and the hulking sharpshooter Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Hey, if you’re going to start slapping “Star Wars” on at least one film a year, you might as well start targeting Chinese theatrical markets too.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story barrels along with little concern for variety in pacing, containing perhaps more backroom political squabbling (on both sides) than you might expect or want, and its core players feel noticeably underserved by the screenplay, courtesy of Hollywood mainstays Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. But the hands of Gareth Edwards, who directs, are capable enough. The underhanded Machiavellian wetwork stuff is compelling on its face, and once things coalesce around the midpoint, it all builds towards a finale that contains several stretches that rank among the best in all of Star Wars.
Some of the appeal is in how all the puzzle pieces fit together, and it’s a treat to see glimpses of characters you know or will come to know, even if they are, in the case of Grand Moff Tarkin, unconvincingly rendered in CGI, or that of Darth Vader, unforgivably chatty. This doesn’t serve much more narrative purpose than, say, reading a Wikipedia page, but it gives that “Aha!” moment all the same. Plus Vader has one scene of terrifying villainy in particular that makes all his ill-conceived parting puns somewhat forgivable.
The cast elsewhere is actually really good, even if the committed performances are straining against a clunky script that feels stretched between two wavering extremes of tone. Mendelsohn is dry as the barking Director and Felicity Jones (as usual) fails to impress, but Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang are lots of fun, Forrest Whitaker impresses in a brief role as freedom fighter and Jyn’s mentor, Saw Gerrera, and Diego Luna manages to sell the (admittedly unexplored) angle of the Rebel Alliance being overly militant – “We’ve all done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion,” and all that, which is nice when you consider that the most morally complex A New Hope ever got was Han Solo being a smuggler.
It’s all entertaining enough. It has plenty of problems and enjoyed a now-famously troubled production, which in retrospect is pretty obvious. If you divorced it from all the quintessential Star Wars trappings it probably wouldn’t amount to much. But that isn’t the way Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is supposed to be thought about or enjoyed; it’s one small component – and, of course, a very expensive answer to a longstanding minor fanboy nitpick – of a much bigger, greater thing. And taken as such, it is proof that Disney could, and perhaps should, keep doing exactly what they’re doing.