From what I can tell, we’re going to be getting a new Star Wars movie every year for the next several years. The current studio plan seems to consist of having proper, numbered episodes every other year with spinoff material in between to keep things from getting stale. That’s admittedly a sound approach.
This year’s entry, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is one of the spinoff tales. The film is essentially the full explanation of a plot point briefly mentioned in the opening credits of the original Star Wars back in 1977: the theft of the Death Star plans that the rebels then use to blow it up. We are shown the entirety of the story of that event, the people involved, and how it all ties into the larger Star Wars saga. It even provides an answer to a nearly forty-year-old plot hole about why the Death Star is able to be blown up at all. This is admittedly an interesting subject for a Star Wars narrative; and it gives the picture a very unique feel. This movie is something of a prequel and something of a spinoff; it is something of a standalone film and something of another episode. To be sure, it is the right amount of familiar and fresh.
Our principle characters are a rag-tag group of rebels — the titular Rogue One that steals the Death Star plans — led by Felicity Jones. I appreciated the diversity of the cast playing the members of this team (a wide variety of ethnicities are represented, which is very good) as well as how each character has at least one trait or moment that makes them stand out and not feel interchangeable with anyone else. I also like that this is the first movie not to include a Jedi as one of the main characters and not to put any real narrative focus on a Skywalker. It shows that other types of characters can carry a Star Wars film. Having said that, I didn’t feel like I got to know these characters especially well, and I had a hard time building a strong emotional connection to them. I think that’s due to the fact that the characters get moments to shine but then are somewhat dropped from the story for a while. Felicity Jones’s character, in particular, is one who could have used more background scenes explaining who she is and why she feels the way she does. A bare minimum is there to get the point across, but it just feels like there are gaps in the story* that affect being able to appreciate these characters fully.
Aside from that, the movie mostly works. The action is pretty good, the worlds we visit are sufficiently imaginative, and the story is rarely if ever dull. Granted, the climatic battle at the end was a little too long for my taste, and parts of it were quite contrived, but the final moments were definitely very emotional, so I will cut it some slack. A particularly nice touch is that, given that this movie takes place right before the original Star Wars, the filmmakers have tried very hard to connect this picture to that one in terms of atmosphere and characters. A great deal of effort was clearly put into matching the aesthetics of the original, down to costumes, graphics, and the musical score (which is quite good). More over, some fun, more direct references to the original are given in the form of surprise references and cameos. To give two examples, they went as far as to bring back James Earl Jones to voice Darth Vader (who, despite a limited screen time, is very menacing here) and to digitally recreate Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarken for some scenes. Though I think it would have been better to have had an actor in makeup, I appreciate the effort of trying to include the character in this story.
It’s worth noting that this is a grittier picture than some of the other Star Wars entries. Characters are grimmer and the violence is more intense. Some of the action scenes, particularly the ground battle at the end, have the flavor of a war film in terms of style and execution (i.e. more scary and less thrilling); and the final fates of our main characters are somber, to say the least. While there is some humor, it’s isolated and has very little impact on the gravity of what’s going on. In short, this film doesn’t pull any punches; but it’s handled well overall and in a very mature way. This movie makes one feel what’s at stake, and it definitely appeals to the sensibilities of those of us who want genuine drama from this kind of material.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not a perfect film; but, more so than perhaps any other Star Wars entry since the original, it expands the mythos in a meaningful way and opens the door for other, more distinct stories in the future. I would definitely recommend seeing it; but be sure to approach it with a mature state of mind. I think if you do that, then it is a worthwhile experience.
*Supposedly this is yet another movie that went through a somewhat extensive reshoot/retooling prior to its release. That could possibly explain the sense that some material is missing.