‘Rogue One’ Attempts Something New With the Star Wars Formula
Ever since Disney bought the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas a couple of years ago and effectively restarted the franchise, the holidays have become almost synonymous with a Star Wars movie. It began in 2015, with the long-awaited release of “Episode Seven: The Force Awakens,” and has happened again this year with the first stand-alone Star Wars film, “Rogue One.” Next year, the franchise will take over the holidays once again with the release of “Episode Eight.” However, Christmas 2018 will remain Star Wars-less as of now; “Episode Nine” is not scheduled until May 2019, and the only other stand-alone film that has been announced, a “young Han Solo” project, is slated for summer 2018.
But what about “Rogue One,” the first “stand-alone” story set in the Star Wars movie universe? In a way, the movie represents a big gamble for Disney. The film not only sidesteps the whole Skywalker saga present in the main films, but also does not feature any of the Star Wars universe’s iconic characters in a starring role. The studio could have gone a safer route and began its series of stand-alone films with the Han Solo project, or the rumored Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda solo projects. Instead, the filmmakers chose to film what is essentially Episode 3.9, chronicling events that took place just before the first-ever Star Wars release, “Episode Four: A New Hope.”
In the film, Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a Rebellion soldier and criminal with a past, which connects her to a devastating weapon that the Galactic Empire is on the verge of completing, called the Death Star. Eventually, a ragtag group of fighters join Jyn in trying to obtain the planet-killing weapon’s plans, which contain a hidden vulnerability that the Rebel Alliance may successfully exploit.
If the preceding paragraph left you scratching your head, you are not alone. Some knowledge of Star Wars lore is nowadays recommended to fully enjoy the new crop of films, and familiarity with Episode Four is practically a requirement to understand the implications shown in Rogue One, particularly towards the end.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the movie’s second half plays significantly stronger than its first. While Disney and the filmmakers, which include director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, must be commended for populating a story with mainly new characters, the execution left something to be desired and fell short of what was achieved in The Force Awakens. One reason for this is Jones’ performance as Jyn Erso, which is nowhere near as charismatic and engaging as what Daisy Ridley was able to do in Episode Seven. Diego Luna, as Cassian Andor, also underwhelms.
Others fare better, especially Donnie Yen, who shines in his role as a blind warrior-monk in tune with the Force, the closest thing the Star Wars universe has to a religion. Alan Tudyk, who voices the bristly android K-2SO, almost steals the show, and provides some of the film’s laughs, which were at times much needed amid the film’s overly dour tone. Finally, Ben Mendelsohn chews up scenery with gusto in his turn as Orson Krennic, one of the film’s main villains.
In many ways, “Rogue One” has many similarities with “Suicide Squad,” a DC Movie Universe film that came out earlier this year. Not only do both movies feature a group of rebels and misfits embarking upon a seemingly impossible mission, but they also went through significant rewrites and reshoots. In the case of “Rogue One,” this is evident in the sheer amount of footage that was shown in trailers that did not make it to the finished film. However, while “Suicide Squad” falls apart, “Rogue One” holds its own as a finished piece, although some of the seams nevertheless show.
Some online critics have noted that the Star Wars universe, although seemingly expansive in scope, is actually very limited in the elements and themes it can convey successfully, with most such elements driven heavily by nostalgia. For example, Darth Vader always has to be present in some way, either by appearing in his iconic black suit or chronicling his earlier life as Anakin Skywalker. Light sabers and storm troopers are likewise a must. Characters such as the androids R2-D2 and C3PO must also appear, even if it is just as a shoehorned cameo. Contrast that with Disney’s other blockbuster movie franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which boasts more than a dozen films with a richness of characters and settings that Star Wars could only dream at.
In all, “Rogue One” is a good movie with great moments that rank among the best in the whole series. Yet they are fleeting, and the connecting threads between those awe-inspiring moments are just strong enough to raise this film among the middle echelon of Star Wars movies, but not much higher.