Rogue One is a highly entertaining example of what might be the true long-term future of Star Wars. A year after a successful rebooting via the first entry in a sequel trilogy that went to painstaking efforts to live and breathe the same sensibilities of Lucas' original trilogy (to the point that it essentially retold A New Hope), we now have our first "stand-alone" anthology outing — which might serve as the answer to the question of what Star Wars unmoored from the Skywalker family name might actually look like. The answer: It looks and feels exactly like we're in the Star Wars universe, but it inhabits a noticeably altered take and tone. For the first time, it seems, under director Gareth Edwards, we have a new owner turned loose in the store.
And it's possible that future stand-alone films may have their own tones, serving only themselves. That's part of the statement being made here. Star Wars is a universe, but a Star Wars movie is whatever its particular goals are.
As for Rogue One: This is a darker, grittier, more modern film that pulls significantly back (albeit not completely) in the humor department and seems to be more seriously invested in the "war" part of Star Wars. Gone are the opening crawl and scene transition wipes. Newly enacted are on-screen visual cards telling us what planet we're on. Gone is the sense that we're in a Saturday-morning serial (always Lucas' original inspiration) and instead ever-present is an efficient and urgent 21st-century action-plot sensibility. There are a lot fewer lightsabers — indeed, just one. And plenty more guns. The characters are sullen and tortured, having lived rough lives under the oppressive thumb of the Empire and the endless violence ensuing from an opposing Rebellion.
Remember how Lucas' prequel trilogy went to such pains to invent grand new vistas showing strange, amazing, and varied worlds? Not here. The vistas, while impressive, are decidedly earthly. Desert. Mountains. Rain. Tropical. Planetary orbit. The backdrop is a place to frame the characters' mission, as opposed to being there for their own sake. This story is not an adventure, but a military operation.
Yet at the same time, this is still, at its heart, well, A Star Wars Story. It always looks and feels like Star Wars, even if the tone has shifted. We have a character who mentions, "I have a bad feeling about this" — even though in this case he probably has a better reason to say so, since the lack of sequels and the nature of this particular tale means there's no reason that he, or indeed anyone, is guaranteed to survive.
Meanwhile, this is the first Star Wars film not scored by John Williams. But Michael Giacchino does what frequently seems to be in the same tradition and will likely not seem noticeably different for the vast majority of filmgoers — and he invokes key Williams themes for a number of key moments.
The fact that the plot itself covers an untold but already firmly established story within the existing lore — essentially making this a self-contained prequel (Episode 3.9?) — certainly helps keep the story firmly rooted in the existing playground. Obtaining the plans that would enable the destruction of the Death Star famously cost the lives of many brave Rebel heroes. This is that story.
Perhaps the cleverest new take on existing material is that the Death Star's fatal "design flaw" was actually put there intentionally by one of its chief architects, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant scientific mind forced to work for the Empire to create its sinister weapon. He was recruited (kidnapped) at gunpoint after renouncing the Empire, in an incident that left his wife dead. The whole thing is witnessed by their young daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), who is orphaned and subsequently raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) a Rebel leader whose methods against the Empire are thought even by the Rebellion to be too extreme.
We pick up the story 13 years later, where Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) along with reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) are assigned to recruit Jyn to reach out to Gerrera, who is believed to know how to contact Jyn's father. The Rebellion wants Galen Erso dead before he can complete the Death Star, but tells Jyn they want to turn him to the Rebellion.
This takes us to the world of Jedha, where a Rebel uprising in a desert city makes the movie look like any one of recent U.S. war films set in Iraq or Afghanistan, with rooftop snipers, chaos in the streets, and terrorist-style violence being met with a crackdown response by stormtrooper forces. If The Force Awakens didn't already make it clear, Rogue One hammers home the point: The days of Lucas' prequels' aloof, detached exposition are long gone and the franchise lives and breathes, stylistically speaking, in the very immediate and relatable here and now.
On Jedha, Jyn and Cassian are joined by mercenary Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind man whose use of the Force provides him extensive martial arts abilities. It's also here where Jyn is reunited with Gerrera, who has obtained a holographic recording of Jyn's father that explains the vulnerability of the Death Star he has hidden within it. This information is conveyed precisely Just In Time and Too Late. It's Just In Time in that it reveals the piece of information that will drive the mission forward; it's Too Late in that Grand Moff Tarkin orders the destruction of the Rebel city (using the fully armed and operational Death Star) at precisely this moment, which destroys the holographic recording and kills everyone who has seen it except for Jyn.
So let's talk for a moment about Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing, who died more than 20 years ago, yet seemingly appears in this movie thanks to CGI wizardry and a sound-alike voice actor. I found the scenes with Tarkin distracting, mostly because I was so busy trying to spot flaws in the technology's facade that I couldn't concentrate on the scenes or the dialogue. There's still just no way for a CGI amination to perfectly replicate a human performance that is seamless, although at times the animators here come close.
Still, I have doubts about the tastefulness of the method. I saw this movie after the unfortunate and untimely death of Carrie Fisher but before the producers released statements saying they would not use her image for Episode IX. (Her scenes for Episode VIII were shot last summer.) Presumably, Leia is a major component to whatever story arc is in store for Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren, and my immediate thought after seeing CGI Peter Cushing was to shudder at the thought of a CGI Carrie Fisher. Since that apparently won't be the case, I do wonder why the producers of this film felt it okay to create CGI Peter Cushing. Is the out-of-bounds nature of CGI-ing Carrie Fisher borne mostly from the Too Soon Factor? I feel vaguely disrespectful even talking about it.
But anyway. The search for Galen takes our Rebel unit to an Imperial base on a stormy, rainy world where the Imperial commanders have learned that someone on Galen's engineering team is a spy who has leaked key intelligence information. Jyn approaches the base just as the stormtroopers are preparing to gun down all the engineers, while a Rebel airstrike is simultaneously called in. The timing of all this is, shall we say, convenient. Galen and Jyn are reunited just in time for him to die in her arms, and provide the information and motivation to push Jyn to the final stop on the mission — the location of the Imperial base housing an archive that holds the plans to the Death Star. With these plans, Galen's fatal defect can be exploited.
It's here that Jyn also realizes that her team's intentions were never likely to allow her father to live. This sets up perhaps the movie's best dramatic scene, where Jyn and Cassian face off over their motivations, ending with Cassian's rather good point: Jyn has lost a great deal, but there are people who have lived the Rebel fight for a lifetime who have lost far more. She hardly has a monopoly on suffering.
That this is the best dramatic scene in the film is perhaps one of the biggest problems with Rogue One. This is an earnest war film that feels gritty, immediate, and lived-in, but there's something lacking in the characterization. In short, the characters are very much generic types in the long tradition of war films, and not particularly deep or developed. The sense of grimness hangs over everyone, but it doesn't particularly lend much specificity or humanity to the proceedings. Rogue One is efficient and effective, but it is also relentlessly mercenary. These are hard people who have been carved of hard times, and that's about the extent of who they are and, thus, our investment in them. There's a certain fun factor lacking here that is more evident in The Force Awakens.
I appreciated the film's ties back to A New Hope, including scenes on the Rebel base where decisions must be made about what to do with Jyn's uncorroborated intelligence about the Death Star, set amid the relative hopelessness and splintered ineffectiveness of the Rebel chain of command. It's here where Our Heroes decide amid the Rebel inaction to Go Rogue and embark on a Brave Mission to Storm the Enemy Fortress, an installation on Scarif that houses a data center containing the plans to the death star, which combined with Jyn's knowledge about its weakness, could be used to destroy it.
Thus begins a third act in which the heroic team carries out a daring plan against long odds. I won't belabor the details, but the action here is first-rate in execution, albeit totally conventional as these things go. Jyn and Cassian must break into the data center and steal the files, while most of the rest of team, including Imwe and Malbus, serve as doomed ground troops that must ensure that the base's shields are lowered so Jyn can transmit the plans to the Rebel fleet, once they arrive. (The fleet's arrival, by the way, permits the space battles that make this especially feel like Star Wars.)
That the mission ends in the successful transmission of the Death Star plans to the Rebel fleet is a foregone conclusion. That all the heroes die in the process (Tarkin orders the Death Star destroy the Scarif base after it's compromised) is perhaps not, although it was always certainly a possibility. Jyn and Cassian get an artfully framed death that drives home the story's notion of a suicide mission. But their deaths also serve to underline their limited function as characters; they exist to serve their doomed mission only within those morose parameters.
One last thing. Darth Vader's scenes in the film are perfectly placed — enough to make his role significant enough that he is truly in the movie (complete with dialogue voiced by James Earl Jones), but not so much that he overpowers everything else. Call it an extended cameo in a movie that is very much its own thing. Still, his level of swift and brutal ass-kicking in the final minutes (and the film's only use of a lightsaber) is something to behold, like a fearsome storm sweeping through the landscape.
Rogue One concludes with scenes that occupy space and time that occur immediately before A New Hope, possibly within hours or even minutes. The connective tissue employed here, from costumes to sets, is expertly and seamlessly done. And then it all ends very abruptly, kind of like this review.