By Joseph Walter
Was "Rogue One," the first of many spin-off films, going to be a money-milking creative disaster? Or was it going to justify its existence as a worthwhile effort?
The answer is simple: This is a prequel film done right. In fact, it accomplishes more in terms of meaningful storytelling and connectivity in its running time than much of the prequel trilogy did for its entire duration. And that is no small feat.
A direct precursor to "A New Hope," the plot involves the dangerous effort to acquire the plans for the original Death Star. No, there were no Bothans dying. That was for the second Death Star.
On the surface, this seems like a story that doesn't need to be told. From "A New Hope," we seeminlgy know everything worth knowing: The rebels acquired these plans, and now they need to blow up the Death Star. Somehow, "Rogue One" makes this journey worthwhile, with an engaging cast of characters, an interesting, personal story, spectacular action sequences, and the bravery to break new ground within the tone of "Star Wars."
While "Episode VII" was essentially a retread, "Rogue One" bravely departs from what has come before it. A perfect example of this is eschewing of the traditional opening crawl and main titles, opting instead for a delayed title reveal, and a genuinely awesome, unique version of the beloved theme song.
Better yet, "Rogue One's" distinctive take on the "Star Wars" mythos isn't just stylistic. We have "heroic" characters partaking in morally reprehensible acts, and the presence of the Force and Jedi becoming almost mythic. This alone is the antithesis of the previous seven films, where Sith, Jedi, lightsabers and the nature of the Force took center stage. This time, the spotlight is on the "war" in "Star Wars." On regular people doing what they can to overthrow the Empire.
Being a war film, the action is grittier than fans are likely used to, with a large emphasis on guerilla ground tactics along with thrilling airstrikes and dogfights. Thankfully, the camera work and pacing gives credence to the action at hand.
Also giving life to the proceedings are oustanding visual effects, particularly the space battles, which feature ships and set pieces that look almost identical to the models and lighting of the original trilogy. Seriously, this film's Star Destroyers and the models in "A New Hope" look like mirror images.
Aside from visual effects, it also helped that there was some of the coolest cinematography I've ever seen. A particular highlight was the Death Star eclipsing the sun and firing its deadly beam, as seen in the trailer.
Speaking of the Death Star, this was the first time since watching "A New Hope" and "Return of the Jedi" as a kid that I actually feared this impossibly-huge vessel. Its destructive capabilities were on beautiful display, with the firing sequences lovingly recreated shot-for-shot from the original throughout. The battle station is an awesome power, and the stunned looks of its own operators after testing its weapon shows that even the Empire's staff seemed uncomfortable and in awe over what they had created.
Another strength was the number of new characters introduced to the universe, and how we learned just enough about each one to make them feel real. Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, is a phenominal character. She's scrappy and mean, and I love her for it. There's a bitterness about her, but Jones expertly commands a subtle, hopeful warmth that Jyn hides deep inside. Krennic, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is an interesting villain in terms of what the Empire has to offer, and easily the most three-dimensional of his ilk. He has a temper, and simmering aspirations, but an underlying nervousness due to his seeming reputation for making sloppy mistakes. The stand-out of the cast, however is K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial Droid with no filter, and a unique sense of self worth and wry humor.
I'd also be remiss not give a shout-out to the always awesome Genevieve O'Reilly as a spot-on Mon Mothma.
Something that "Episode VII" failed to deliver on was a cast of memorable side characters, something that is intrinsic to "Star Wars." And on this front, "Rogue One" takes the day. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior-monk with a deep belief in the Force. He is joined by his good friend, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) who prefers a blaster to old, hokey religions. The bond these two share, and their own mini-arc, was a fantastic side-plot. We learn just enough to care, but not enough for the mystery to be taken away, which is essential.
Then there are the Death Troopers, the personal strike team of Krennic, who are poised to become the next Boba Fett for fans. Never named on screen, they are merciless, efficient, terrfyingly loyal, and only communcate through scrambled transmissions.
"Rogue One" also succeeds on the fan-service front. Instead of opting for cheesy call backs ("That thing looks like the Death Star." "It is like the Death Star, ONLY A LOT BIGGER AND WAY WORSE AND SO SCARY" - some guys in "Episode VII" talking about Starkiller Base) it relied on subtle references and, most importantly, a collection of very, very cool cameos, some of which are jaw-droppingly surprising. And I'm not talking about Darth Vader.
Another great strength is that the film was not afraid to take the story where it needed to go. "Rogue One" concludes the way it should, and is, in many ways, the perfect precursor to "A New Hope," and the original trilogy as a whole.
Despite all this, the film is not without its foibles.
Cassian, played by Diego Luna, has some occasionally questionable acting. I'm sure Diego is talented, as he was chosen among many, many others for the role, but there were times when his performance reminded me of an amateur YouTube short film with high school kids spouting lines that they weren't capable of delivering effectively, trying very hard to be taken seriously. This wasn't a consistant issue for me, but it did happen enough times to take me out of the zone.
There was also a very brief sequence where a large, ugly, computer generated creature is pointlessly introduced and only very briefly used. It seems as though this particular sequence may have been an artifact from a previous version of the script, as there were much easier ways to accomplish the goal of that scene than to include that particular oddity.
The most disappointing issue of all, however, is that the score is somewhat dubious. For much of the film, I suspected that Alexandre Desplat, a composer that I appreciate but am not a major fan of (and who is not proficient with adapting previously existing material, like his efforts with the "Harry Potter" series) was responsible for the music, only to discover that it was Michael Giacchino.
This was a shock because the music is far from the bombast of Giachhino's "Star Trek" or "Speed Racer" scores. Even more surprising was that his great skill with wartime music, particularly his awesome work on "Medal of Honor: Airborne," was also seemingly absent. Instead, we're given a mostly anonymous score, that occasionally has nice renditions of classic motifs. Bizzarely, the theme for Jyn is uncomfortably similar to the love theme from “Star Wars: Episode II,” which seems like it has to be an oversight, but who knows.
Another problem with the score was that the music's relationship to the onscreen action was a little off, with the majority of the music maintaining a somewhat whimsical feeling, which was head-scratching. Scenes that were filled to the brim with perilous sequences lacked the emotional impact and musical stakes required to sell them properly. When the AT-ATs start to rout the rebels, the music remains in a state of high-energy action cues filled with light-hearted whimsy, when it’s clear that a demonic rendition of the “Imperial March” was needed to sell the fact that the Empire is an overwhelmingly deadly and oppressive force.
In fact, an overall lack of the "Imperial March" as the defining theme for the Empire in this film was an odd choice. Sure, the march that was created was serviceable, but why create a new march when the king of all marches already exists? In the same way, I would have liked to hear the Rebel Fanfare be adapted into a more fleshed-out theme since we spend so much time with the Rebel Alliance.
On a positive note, there is a version of the "Imperial March" that plays during a particular sequence in the finale that almost makes up for its comparative lack otherwise.
Aside from these few missteps, "Rogue One" was everything I had ever hoped it would be, and more.
It's great to see the franchise enter territory it's not yet comfortable with tonally, and I hope that this experiment pays off with more risk-taking for the spin-off films to come.
3.25 out of 4
*Brief Spoiler Discussion Below the Break*
When the back of his head and voice were teased during a conversation with Krennic, I was certain they weren't going to show us his face. It was just going to be another fun cameo. But no, I was wrong. So wrong. So thankfully wrong.
He turns around and I couldn't help but gasp and say "SO cool!" out loud. It's a surreal and awesome moment.
Even more exciting is that he has a much larger than expected role! His arguments with Krennic were some of the highlights of the whole film for me, since I am such a huge fan.
Also, I need to say that in the way "Batman v. Superman" had the greatest Batman fight scene ever commited to film, that "Rogue One" contains one of, if not the absolute best, Darth Vader sequence in the franchise. If you're not sold on this movie as a whole, go in with that knowledge. It's worth it.