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Josh Reviews Rogue One!

December 16th, 2016
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Let me get this out right at the top: Rogue One is better than The Force Awakens.

For those looking for a spoiler-free review, there you go.

For everyone else, buckle in, let’s go!

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I have for years been dreaming of seeing a brand new Star Wars film on the big screen that I could say was great without reservation, and I think that film has finally, finally arrived.

I suspect Rogue One will not be nearly as universally beloved as The Force Awakens.  It is far more adult and sophisticated, and the film goes to some dark, dark places.  This is not a kiddie-focused Star Wars movie, and I love it for that, but I suspect that will hurt the film with general audiences.  I also think that despite the film’s pleasingly simple premise — this is the story of how the rebels captured the Death Star plans that Princess Leia hid in R2D2 in the original Star Wars — I have been shocked by how many friends have asked me, in the past week, “so when is this film set?”  To me, the film’s marketing has been very clear, but I suspect many out there don’t see it as the must-watch continuation of the saga that The Force Awakens was so successfully marketed as.

But I am here to tell you, Rogue One is glorious, a rousing adventure story that packs a devastating emotional punch.  Rogue One grapples with the realities of war and sacrifice in a way that none of the previous Star Wars films have.  The original adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia were something of a fairy tale, but Rogue One shows us the reality behind the fairy tale, the lives and losses of the men and women who struggled in the dirt to set the stage for Luke to save the day in A New Hope.  The film was written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and directed by Gareth Edwards.  These are all Star Wars newbies (with the exception of John Knoll — though he hasn’t previously been involved on a story level, Mr. Knoll has been a key creative force in ILM for decades), but together they have crafted a magnificent Star Wars film.

This story is set immediately prior to the opening scene of the original Star Wars movie.  As that move begins, Darth Vader is in hot pursuit of Princess Leia’s small ship, aboard which Vader knows are the stolen Death Star plans.  Rogue One winds the story back a bit, to tell us how the Rebels first discovered the existence of the Death Star, and then how they got their hands on the battle station’s plans.

As Rogue One opens, we see the moment when the young girl Jyn Erso was separated from her father, Galen Erso (Mass Mikkelsen).  The imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) needs Galen’s genius to bring the Death Star project to fruition.  To protect his daughter, Galen allows himself to be brought back into Krennic’s service.  Fifteen years later, Jyn (now played by Felicity Jones) is a lost soul, with no family and no purpose.  When we meet the adult Jyn in the film, she’s locked up in an Imperial prison.  But the Rebels bust her out, because they need her connections both to her father and to the terrorist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), whose violent tactics have caused him to split away from the Rebel Alliance.  As the story continues, Jyn gathers around her a motley crew of people willing to risk their lives to fight against the Empire, including the rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the defector imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), the blind warrior Chirrut (Donnie Yen), his gut-toting comrade Baze (Jiang Wen), and the Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).  Their efforts eventually lead to a final, desperate gambit and an open confrontation (is this the very first?) between the Rebellion and the Empire.

I generally hate prequels, but Rogue One picks a rich time period in which to set its story.  While George Lucas’ deeply flawed Prequel Trilogy was set in a very different era, Rogue One is very much set in the time of the original Star Wars, and Mr. Edwards uses this to maximum effect.  We get to thrill to seeing a lot of classic Star Wars iconography revisited, including original design Stormtroopers and X-Wings and Star Destroyers and lots more.  This is an era in which the Empire has been in power for decades.  The Jedi are gone, faded into myth, and there is little hope left in the galaxy.  As a result, most of the men and women we meet in the film are living without hope, on the verge of desperation.  This raises the stakes dramatically for our heroes.  The Rebellion is truly a desperate struggle here, more desperate than we have ever seen them before in a Star Wars film.  I love that the film is about heroic characters being able to find hope in the face of hopelessness, to find courage when there is no reason to expect anything other than bitter defeat.  The events of Rogue One give new meaning to the subtitle of the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, and the film’s perfect last line is a phenomenal segue into that original film.

I want to discuss the film deeper without ruining all of its surprises, but I feel I need to post a big SPOILER WARNING here.  If you’ve read this far without yet having seen the film, I encourage you to stop here and come back after you have seen it.  This is a film best enjoyed going in pure, without having too many of its beats and turns spoiled for you.

While this film is a prequel, I was impressed by how new and innovative it feels.  Mr. Edwards manages to find the incredibly tricky balance between on the one hand feeling very much like a Star Wars film, perfectly capturing the familiar tone and “feel” of Star Wars, while also being innovative and new.  Even though The Force Awakens was a new adventure, that film felt very derivative of previous Star Wars films.  Even the things I enjoyed about The Force Awakens had a lot of that; the film mined great joy from the pleasures of seeing all of the original characters again, from seeing The Millennium Falcon flying again, from seeing Luke’s lightsaber again, etc. etc.  The film’s weaknesses also sprang from this area, most notably the very familiar third act in which the Rebels had to once again blow up a Death Star-like object.  Whereas Rogue One is a prequel and so you might expect it to traffic in nothing but the familiar, I was impressed by how new and different the film felt, with a boatload of new characters, new planets, new aliens, and most importantly of all, new situations.

I love ALL of the new characters in the film.  Each one feels like a vital, interesting new addition to the mythos, and each one has an important role to play in the film.  My favorite is for sure blind Chirrut (Donnie Yen).  What a fascinating new character, instantly iconic and wonderful.  I love the way this film explores the Force through his character.  I love the subtle way in which this is depicted.  Chirrut is no Jedi.  He can feel the Force, and use that feeling to aid his bad-ass fighting style, but he cannot USE the Force to throw things around, move people or things, use a lightsaber, etc.  By the way, speaking of things that are new in Rogue One, how great is it that this is the first Star Wars film without any Jedi characters?  That’s a bold choice and I love it.

Alan Tudyk steals the show as the droid K-2SO.  I love that he can speak, rather than beep or burble, and I love the sharp attitude Mr. Tudyk brings to the character.  K-2So is probably the funniest character in the film, and his last scene is one of the most emotional.  What a range.

The always-great Forest Whitaker is intriguing as the old terrorist Saw Gerrera.  This is a very interesting character.  I love that the film chose to use this character who had previously been seen on the animated Clone Wars series.  I love the idea of exploring how fractured the Rebel Alliance was in this time-period through this character, a man with more violent instincts than Bail Organa or Mon Mothma.  I wish we got to know this character better.  While we learn enough, this is the one character I felt was somewhat let down by the film.  But it’s also a compliment to Mr. Whitaker’s performance that I would have loved to have explored this character more.  What was his connection to the Erso family?  What was he like in his days raising Jyn?  What happened when he broke from the Rebel Alliance?

Riz Ahmed and Jian Wen are both terrific as Bodhi and Baze, respectively.  These characters could have easily faded into the background and/or been underdeveloped, but Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Wen both make a meal out of their roles.  These characters are every bit as rich as the leads.

Diego Luna is terrific as the Rebel intelligence operative Cassian Andor.  I love the way that the film explores, through Cassian, the many compromises and dark deeds that the Rebels have had to do to stay alive and ahead of the Empire’s grasp.  I love the slow, careful way the film develops his relationship with Jyn, allowing the characters to progress through a range of emotions towards one another — and very different worldviews — before arriving at their heartbreaking final moment together.

I’ve been a fan of Felicity Jones ever since her 2011 film Like Crazy, and she’s terrific here as Jyn.  I love that, like The Force Awakens, Rogue One centers on a strong female lead.  Jyn is a fascinating character, and she is very successful as the main audience surrogate role, through whose eyes we experience the story.

Mads Mikkelsen often plays villains, but I love that here he is able to give Galen such honor and nobility even in just a few scenes.  It’s a great performance by Mr. Mikkelsen.  I also love the samurai-like look given to Galen.

Ben Mendelsohn is spectacular as the villainous Krenic.  He is a very human villain but no less fearsome for that.  I love the rivalry the film gives him with Tarkin.  It’s great to see the dynamic of these imperials all fighting with one another for power.

Rogue One might be the best written Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.  Major credit here to Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.  So many modern blockbusters feel rambling and all over the place, without a clear narrative movement from scene to scene.  This can leave the audience wondering, “wait, where is that character?”  Or “why did that character go there or do that?”  This was not a weakness of the original three Star Wars films, but it did affect the prequels and it most definitely affected The Force Awakens.  But Rogue One, while a very complicated and plot-heavy movie with many different characters and locations, is wonderfully well-constructed.  The film juggles its multiple characters beautifully, allowing the audience to easily follow what is going on and who is going where and, most importantly, why they are doing whatever it is they are doing.  I love the way the story unfolds and, like the original Star Wars, allows one character’s story to eventually blossom into an epic tale with galaxy-spanning consequences.  In Star Wars, young farmboy Luke Skywalker’s tale eventually built to the massive Rebel Alliance assault on the Death Star.  Here in Rogue One, the story of a young girl separated from her father eventually expands into a massive, and galaxy-shaking, Rebel-Empire conflict taking place on the ground and in space.

Holy cow is the climax of this movie spectacular.  The battle on the surface is brutal; this is very much a war movie in the way Star Wars has never been.  Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks vs Stormtrooper battles were cute.  Rogue One is not cute.  People bleed and suffer and die.  I love the reality that Mr. Edwards was able to create with his battle sequences — which heightens the drama — and I adore the creative way in which he was able to structure the combat, brilliantly weaving together multiple different situations involving Rebel ground troops, several different kinds of stormtroopers, Imperial Walkers, X-wings, and more.  Each situation is more clever than the next.  Meanwhile, the outer-space dogfight is extraordinary.  The massive space battle at the end of Return of the Jedi is the gold standard, but boy does Rogue One give Jedi a run for its money.  The visual effects work is absolutely astounding.  The space battle is massive but easy to follow, fun to watch but with real stakes.  It’s amazing, spectacular work.

I mentioned above how Rogue One was able to mine all of the most positive aspects of being a prequel by digging into this particular “era” of Star Wars, an era with tremendous nostalgic value to many Star Wars fans.  Yet another way the film demonstrates this is the way it handles all of its call-backs to previous Star Wars films.  Like The Force Awakens, the film is filled with call-backs to aspects of the previous films that Star Wars fans will giggle with glee over.  But unlike The Force Awakens, where so many of those call-backs were obvious, Rogue One is filled with impressively deep cuts made by people who clearly thought very hard about this specific story and time-period and who it would be logical for us to see involved in the story.  It’s great to see both Mon Mothma (glimpsed as the head of the Rebel Alliance in The Return of the Jedi) as well as that bearded dude from Star Wars both present in the scenes with the Rebel Alliance leadership.  Some sort of CGI recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (played so memorably by Peter Cushing in Star Wars) is in a ton of scenes taking place on or near the Death Star.  I’m not sure how they achieved this, but of course Tarkin would HAVE to be involved in this story.  (Some of the Tarkin effects shots are extraordinary, while a few are a little wonky, but I loved the audacity of having a CGI Tarkin recreation be a major character in the film.)  Many people in my theatre audience clapped at the brief shot of R2D2 and C3PO, but I yelped out loud with joy when the X-Wings attacked the Imperial planetary shield in the third act and, holy cow, there was Red Leader from Star Wars, somehow CGIed into the sequence!!  That face, that voice, absolutely perfect!  That was genius, absolute genius.  There are some other amazing CGI-ed in surprises that I won’t even dare spoil here.

Of course, one of the best potential aspects of this era of Star Wars is that Darth Vader is alive and well.  One of the biggest letdowns of the prequels, for me, was how little we actually saw Darth Vader on-screen.  Only a few seconds!  Rogue One doesn’t give us that much of Vader, so don’t get your hopes up, but what we get is glorious.  The first Vader scene was a bit of a letdown.  I was intrigued by the glimpses of Vader’s weird castle (picking up some design ideas originally created decades ago, for Empire and Jedi!!), and the lava (is this meant to be on Mustafar?), and his old, cloaked manservant, and the way I guess he likes to hang out in a smoky bacta tank (guess it’s more comfortable than the suit?), but the actual dialogue scene with Krennic was underwhelming.  (Though hearing James Earl Jones deliver fresh Vader dialogue was joyful.)  But don’t fear, Vader pops up again at the end of the film and it is amazing.  As soon as Tarkin says “Vader will take care of the fleet” (meaning the Rebel fleet, attempting to escape), I sat up a little straighter in my seat, and what follows did not disappoint.  It’s great getting to see a top-of-his-game Vader take care of business, wiping out the Rebels.  There’s one all-too-brief sequence in particular in which Vader, red lightsaber a-blazing, fights his way on board the last remaining Rebel ship, using the Force like crazy and massacring the Rebels, and it is extraordinary.  It left me desperate to have seen more, but I guess that was the idea.

Some additional thoughts:

* This was the first Star Wars film not to have been scored by John Williams.  While I adore Michael Giacchino, on this first viewing I was let down by the score.  This is perhaps my only major complaint about the film.  I didn’t feel there were many truly memorable new themes, and I wanted to hear a lot more of the classic Star Wars themes.  Where was the Imperial March when we saw the Death Star and Star Destroyers?  (Mr. Giacchino saved the Imperial March theme for when we saw Vader, which wouldn’t have been the tack I would have taken.)  I understand that the classic Star Wars music was usually used by Mr. Williams as Jedi/Force-connected music, so here in a Jedi-free film we wouldn’t get much of that.  I can live with that.  But just as I wanted to hear more of the Imperial March, I also wanted to hear a lot more of the familiar Rebel/heroic music.  Here again, Mr. Giacchino opted to save this for a few specific emotional beats with Jyn, and while those moments were incredible, there were other action sequences in the film that I felt cried out for that familiar Star Wars music.

* I was very surprised that there was no Star Wars opening crawl!  I was surprised by this choice — why is the crawl reserved for Star Wars “episodes” focused on the Skywalker family? — and this was yet another place where I dearly missed hearing the familiar Star Wars music.  If we weren’t going to get a lot of classic Star Wars themes in the main score, it would have been great to have heard that opening fanfare at the beginning.  But on the other hand I applaud Mr. Edwards and his team for daring to be different and try something new.

* On that note, I applaud Mr. Edwards for also using a lot of different stylistic devices during the film.  I don’t believe there was a single familiar Star Wars wipe between scenes, and this film is filled with on-screen labeling of planets and locations that has never before been used in a Star Wars film.  We also got the title after the opening sequence — more like a James Bond film! — rather than at the very beginning like all previous Star Wars films.  Bravo to Mr. Edwards for daring to be different.

* Speaking of the title, I am SO HAPPY that this film’s title card calls it ROGUE ONE.  No “A Star Wars Story” — THANK GOD!!!  I have been complaining about the film’s verbose and stupid title (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) for months.  I’d said it should be called Star Wars: Rogue One, but I’ll settle for just Rogue One.  (Though it was weird to never see the familiar Star Wars logo on-screen anywhere in the film.  Here’s another reason I’d have chosen to include an opening crawl, so we could get the usual Star Wars title before this specific movie’s title of Rogue One…)

* I loved seeing Jimmy Smits reprise his role of Bail Organa.  Though I would have dearly loved to have seen more of him.  This great actor and great character was wasted in the prequels and didn’t have much to do here either — even one truly substantial scene would have made me happy.  Still, just seeing him was great, and yet another nice touch to continuity.

*Speaking of continuity, I also loved the film’s mentions of the Senate, reminding us that the Senate did still exist in this time-period — the Emperor didn’t dissolve the Senate until mid-way through the original Star Wars.

* I loved the brief exchange between Bail and Mon Mothma about Obi-Wan Kenobi.  I’ll admit to having hoped to have actually seen Ewan McGregor reprising the role, but that was not to be.  (Maybe in a future film!!)  Still, it’s interesting that Bail has shared with Mon Mothma that Obi-Wan survived the Purge.  I need to re-watch that scene again to catch the nuances of exactly what was said.  But that was an important moment as, remember, Leia was sent to find Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars, so we needed to see Bail make that decision to try to pull the old Jedi out of hiding at this moment.  (Though this also begs the question of what you-know-who was doing on those Rebel ships during the battle at Scarif at the end of the film.  First of all, wouldn’t this feisty character have been involved in the fighting?  Was she just hanging out on that ship the whole time?  Second, if her mission was to bring Obi-Wan out of hiding, then why was she at Scarif in the first place?  And then, once she had the only copy of the Death Star plans, why would she have headed to Tatooine rather than back to the Rebel base at Yavin??  This feels like a hole in the plot to me…)

*  Speaking of Yavin, how great was it to see Yavin again???

* Interesting touch to give Vader’s eyes a red tint.  This was a design aspect of Vader’s helmet occasionally glimpsed in the original Star Wars but dropped for Empire and Jedi.  The Star Wars Rebels cartoon has given Vader back his red-tinted eyes in his animated appearances on that show.  Here again, this is a deep cut and giving Vader the reddish eyes shows an impressive attention to detail and Star Wars continuity.

* I loved getting to hear Kyber crystals discussed on-screen in a Star Wars movie.  This had long been a piece of “expanded universe” Star Wars backstory, the idea that these crystals were used in Jedi’s lightsabers.  We’d also seen hints of the idea that the Death Star’s laser was powered by Kyber crystals.  The unfinished Clone Wars 4-part episode “Crystal Crisis”, released as an animatic after the show’s cancellation, contained a story in which the Empire sought to capture a huge Kyber crystal for reasons unrevealed.  It’s awesome to have this theory finally confirmed on-screen.

* I am delighted that this film ret-cons an explanation for one of the silly aspects of the original Star Wars: how could the mighty Death Star have such a fatal flaw?  I love the suggestion that this was not an accident.

* As Rogue One built towards its conclusion, I was reminded of something I’d been wondering about ever since the film was first announced: would any of these characters survive past the film’s ending?  We know none of these characters are present in the Original Trilogy… but then, that’s also the case for many of the characters introduced in the animated Clone Wars and Rebels shows.  It could be that these characters were still alive, just not involved in those events.  So, would this be a film with a happy ending, like most Star Wars films?  Would these characters be kept in play to possibly be revisited in a future sequel?  Or would this film end tragically, making this a story about the sacrifices made by never-before-heard-of Rebels who provided the keys to the Empire’s defeat in Star Wars?  I am pleased that the filmmakers made the exact right choice.  It’s a bold choice, and results in this film not being the family-friendly crowd-pleaser that The Force Awakens was.  But I thought it was perfect.  The final thirty minutes of this film are devastating, as emotionally affecting as Star Wars has ever been.  It’s an amazing accomplishment and, I’ll say again, an impressively bold choice.

There was a lot of news made on-line over the summer when it was announced that the film was undergoing major reshoots and that someone other than director Gareth Edwards — in this case, the film’s co-screenwriter, and a great director in his own rite, Tony Gilroy — was stepping into a major creative role.  Was Gareth Edwards’ vision for the film failing to be successful?  Was a director’s strong vision being mucked with by a studio that was losing faith in a more unusual, idiosyncratic type of franchise film (as apparently happened with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad)?  Was this still Gareth Edwards’ film or was he being pushed aside (as apparently happened with Josh Trank’s misbegotten Fantastic Four reboot)?  I don’t have any answers to those questions — it will take a lot of time, I’d imagine, for us to learn the true story of what was happening behind-the-scenes of this film.  But what matters is the result.  Whatever behind-the-scenes turmoil might have existed (and who knows, perhaps all those rumors were overblown), the finished film is spectacular.

Rogue One is a triumph, the best possible outcome of this first attempt at a Star Wars “spinoff” film.  If all of the future spin-off films are of this quality, then we are in for quite a ride.  Bravo to Gareth Edwards and everyone on his team for pushing the boundaries of the Star Wars universe to create a film that feels fresh and new whole unquestionably Star Wars.  I loved it and can’t wait to see it again.

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