Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – A First Step Into a Larger World

This review contains mild spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  If you haven’t seen it yet, sorry not sorry. 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is Disney and Lucasfilm’s first entry into the promised slate of Star Wars spin-off films, which will eventually include stand-alones focusing on Han Solo and Boba Fett. Cribbed from the opening crawl of A New Hope, the Rogue One details the exploits of the  Rebel spies who stole the plans for the Death Star, remedying one of Star Wars’ biggest plot holes in the process.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the lost daughter of reluctant Imperial weapons designer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), has been recruited by the rebellion to find her father and with him the plans for the Death Star. She’s accompanied by the ruthless and handsome and ruthlessly handsome intel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO, a reprogramed Imperial security droid with the personality of Sheldon Cooper. Along the way, they pick up a crew of rebel and rebel-ish misfits, including a defected Imperial pilot and a couple of out-of-work Jedi temple guards (Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang). The characters are all fun and each have their own memorable moments, although there’s no time for real exploration of their backgrounds and relationships. It’s also just really hard to keep track of six different Star Wars-y names, even on a second viewing.

Rogue One’s production was fraught with re-shoots, and it shows in the final product. Some elements of the plot aren’t well explained — how did Jyn go from being rescued by Saw Gerrera to being incarcerated by the Empire? It seems like a lot of the connective tissue got lost in the shuffle. Luckily these issues are relegated to the first third of the film, but it takes a frustrating amount of head-scratching to get fully immersed into the story.

But if a standalone Star Wars film’s purpose is to expand the universe, then Rogue One is a success in spite of the rocky start. The world feels huge and detailed, bringing us deeper into the mythology: we’re introduced to Jedha, the holy city of the Jedis, and kybers, the Force-attuned crystals that power lightsabers (and also giant spherical super-weapons, turns out). We learn that the Rebellion isn’t a united front: fringe groups with no qualms about civilian casualties threaten to compromise the efforts to restore the republic, blurring the usual stark lines between good and evil.

If there’s one thing that Rogue One nails, it’s the texture. While Force Awakens set in the future and therefore free to establish its own aesthetic, this film had to match the look and feel of A New Hope exactly. Everything is there, from boxy, hard-edged user interfaces to 70’s-style mustaches. It all matches so well that I didn’t even notice that several shots were actual footage cut from the original series.

In the slightly less nailed category is the computer generated visage of Peter Cushing mapped onto the head of actor Guy Henry as Grand Moff Tarkin. The effect is not bad by any means, but the technology isn’t quite to the point where it’s visually seamless. Since director Gareth Edwards got his start in the VFX industry, it’s understandable that he would want to push technological boundaries — whether it was worth taking the audience out of the story for an experiment is debatable. CGI Tarkin might not age very well.

The most common criticism I’ve seen leveled at Rogue One is that it’s “fan service”: just a bunch of cheap references to the original series. I’m not sure what reference-free Star Wars movie these people are imagining. Rogue One ends literally minutes before A New Hope begins. It’s narratively impossible for the two films not to be intimately linked. Maybe it is fan service. But it’s well crafted and fun fan service, so I’m not complaining.

If there’s one thing all Star Wars fans can agree on, it’s that Rogue One fixes one of the only narrative flaws of the Original Series: why was the Death Star so easy to just blow up? Gareth Edwards and co. give us a satisfying answer. For that, the Force will be with them, always.

Stray Observations:

  • Seriously, I have no recollection of Donnie Yen or Wen Jiang’s characters ever being referred to by their names. I’m sure it happened at some point?
  • Re: the re-shoots/re-edits: I threw down $26 for a C2-B5 (evil R2-D2) action figure, thinking that he was going to be a major player. He was literally nowhere to be seen in this film. I could have gotten a K-2SO and now I regret all my life choices.
  • This movie gave me an uncontrollable urge to read a Star Wars novel, so I read Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by veteran Star Wars author James Luceno. It actually has nothing to do with Rogue One per se (marketing I guess), but instead focuses on Galen and Lyra Erso, Orson Krennic, and the planning and construction of the Death Star. It’s completely fascinating and by my not-too-experienced estimation, well written.

3 thoughts on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – A First Step Into a Larger World

  1. Totally agree with you about the look – the production design for this was incredible. And even though I think Edwards routinely puts together a rough assembly of scenes rather than a coherent story, his visuals are sometimes out of this world. The Death Star rising over Scarif was probably one of the most beautiful shots ever in a Star Wars movie.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Didn’t know that, but it totally jives with an interveiw he gave where talking about how they’d spend the last hour of shooting each day just doing things that “looked cool.” I think you can tell the difference between the planning/storyboarding that went into Mad Max: Fury Road and the lack thereof in Rogue One.

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