* WARNING: A VERY FEW MINOR SPOILERS, BUT NO MAJOR REVEALS *
Bottom line: “Star Wars Rogue One” is the best Star Wars movie since “The Empire Strikes Back.”
When it was announced that “Rogue” would not begin with the traditional introductory Star Wars logo and explanatory crawl, it made many (including myself) wonder whether this signaled a dramatic and negative departure from Star Wars tradition, and if so, what kind of a story we should expect.
Turns out we got the best story since “Empire” – deep, complex, heartfelt, and – with moments of true elation, grief and anxiety – a relatable story that actually connects with the audience through well-written, crisp dialogue and a believable plot.
What sets “Rogue” apart from almost every other Star Wars film is the degree to which it excels at achieving a realistic plot generally free of contrivance, genuine emotion from the characters, and a story that meshes perfectly with existing Star Wars canon. This is as far away from “Attack of the Clones” as you can get. The seamless insertion of plot elements from “A New Hope” – including major characters via CGI – help to create an expanded story that bridges the gap between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope”, and fleshes out the backstory missing since 1977.
The creative team behind “Rogue” has gone to great and wonderful lengths to create a feel for the movie that avoids the disjointedness of trying to link movies made 40 years apart. The look and feel are almost indistinguishable, giving a sense of continuity and integrity that allow the stories to mesh flawlessly.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist critical to the construction of the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star Both of them play their respective roles with nuance and gravitas – avoiding the overwrought melodrama present in the prequels. Death Star Project Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) oversees the project and proves to be a capable and realistic villain of the military-industrial complex variety who doesn’t succumb to the temptation to ham it up as the central bad guy.
The actors playing the Rebel Alliance and associated allies provide ample and able support as an ensemble cast pouring their energy into roles are clearly defined and purposely shaped. Gritty and sober Rebel Alliance Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), droid K-2SO (played perfectly by Alan Tudyk) – from whom most of the film’s understated and witty humor emerge, blind spiritual warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) holds onto the situational awareness and combat ability of the Jedi, while stripping away the Deus ex Machina of “The Force” and lightabers, making Chirrut Îmwe perhaps the most Jedi-like character ever.
While Îmwe is the “mind” of the duo, his compatriot Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) plays the role of muscle – watchful bodyguard and brother-in-arms carrying the heavy artillery. They are joined by Imperial pilot turned defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who carries a secret message intended for the Rebel Alliance, but which must first go through an intermediary – Saw Gerrera – played with the perfect amount of damaged / crazy by the inestimable Forest Whitaker.
The means by which the paths of each of these characters intersect is well thought-out by writers Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and brought to life by director Gareth Edwards. The dialogue is crisp and spare, serving the needed purpose and nothing more. Gone are George Lucas’ romance novel scripts which helped sink the prequels. Moments of levity are played as gallows humor, not for laughs – the stakes for our crew of Rebels is high; life or death – and the script reflects that seriousness.
The accompanying music is likewise stripped-down and spare, almost like an orchestra tuning up, readying for a grand, florid performance (to begin in A New Hope), and still finding its way through the score. This is the beginning of the Rebellion – they don’t have heroes yet.
The story of how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the Death Star plans has always been a source of myth and legend. While the radio dramatization of Star Wars from 1981 revealed “a backstory” for this sequence of events, this re-imagining expands the scope of the rebellion and paints it in its truest colors – dark, gritty, bordering on desperation and collapse, hope fading fast. What “Rogue One” accomplishes (which resulted in a standing ovation in the theater where I saw it) is to give new, deeper meaning to “A New Hope”.
Of course, as he was revealed in the film’s trailer, Darth Vader does indeed make a pair of significant appearances, which serve not only to advance the story, but to elevate his stature in the mind of Star Wars aficionados (both of Vader’s appearances resulted in ovations). The last scene in which he is featured is mind-blowing; this is the Darth Vader we’ve always wanted to see. Not only does he go “full Vader”, but when you realize where he is, and the movie’s denouement is revealed, the satisfaction of seeing the story finally resolve itself is deep and affecting. To borrow a phrase from Vader; “at last, the circle is now complete.”
“Rogue One” isn’t just the best Star Wars movie made since “The Empire Strikes Back”, it is a great film in and of itself. With a fantastic cast of characters, solid plot and stunning visuals, it is a worthy addition to Star Wars canon and is not to be missed. Go see it now.