When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise I don’t think anyone expected it to be three movies and done. You don’t exactly spend $4.06 billion just to make three films. Of course Disney being Disney means that Star Wars has become an annual cinematic event featuring new installments/episodes of the main story mixed with one-shot movies meant to fill in some of the gaps between previous films. The first of these one-shots is “Rogue One”.
These stand-alone ‘Star Wars stories’ will apparently be aplenty. Already rumors of a young Han Solo adventure and a Boba Fett origin story are swirling. “Rogue One” notches in just ahead of Episode 4 on the Star Wars timeline. It tells the story of how the original Death Star plans were stolen from the Empire. You know, the ones Princess Leia hid inside of R2-D2 just before being captured by Darth Vader. Just from that you can probably tell fan service is at a premium, but “Rogue One” packs plenty more to give it its own identity and a firm standing among the Star Wars films.
“Rogue One” introduces a new band of characters living within this vivid established world Star Wars fans know well. A strong and heady Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a young woman with a history marked with distress, most notably the separation from her parents as a young child by the hand of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). He’s the Empire’s weapons research director who’s tasked with creating a planet-killing superweapon. Years back Krannic forced Jyn’s father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a weapons designer, to help complete what would become the Death Star essentially leaving Jyn to be raised in hiding.
Jump ahead 15 years. Jyn is rescued from an Imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna), an officer in the fledgling rebellion. Aware of her identity, the rebels have a very specific yet complicated purpose for Jyn which leads her from being a pawn to a potential hero. But to make that journey she will need the help of a good cast of characters – Donnie Yen as the blind mystic Chirrut along with his sidekick/protector Baze (Jiang Wen), an Empire defector named Rook (Riz Ahmed), and the deadpan, scene-stealing droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk).
Gareth Edwards directs and follows up his 2014 reboot of “Godzilla”. In that film Edwards’ deliberate and slow-revealing tempo invigorated some audiences (like me) while frustrating others. There is a bit of that approach here, but for the most part this is an energetic, steady moving picture. Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay at first feels like a very different Star Wars movie yet over time its place in this beloved far, far away galaxy is much more cemented. By the end “Rogue One” not only feels like a Star Wars film, it holds its own within the franchise.
Now I’ve already heard the frustrations of some who desperately wanted this film to be something boldly unique. Complaints that Edwards and company play it safe have merit but there is a reason they do so. “Rogue One” is unshakably tied to Episode 4 and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this film stays within that same style and framework. It’s a wise creative decision which actually helps the film effectively meld into the Star Wars macrocosm. With so many other Anthology films coming, there will still be plenty of opportunities for risk-taking. I don’t think this is it.
“Rogue One” looks amazing, the effects are stunning, the action is energetic, the nostalgia is delightful (minus one shoehorned cameo), there’s the right amount of humor, and it tells a good story. But what surprised me the most was how much I liked its characters. They’re fun and compelling with each having a good franchise footing. Each are easy to root for (or against) particularly as they navigate the film’s themes of loss, sacrifice, heroism, and war. Jones, Mikkelsen, Luna, Mendelsohn, Yen, and Tudyk – great performances and that’s not including the handful of familiar faces we meet along the way.
The original 1977 film alluded to the mission to steal the Death Star plans and the brave rebels who carried it out. The danger was intense and the cost was high. “Rogue One” tells that story with spirit and at times grit. I had confidence this could be good but with a degree of caution. I’m so pleased that my caution proved unwarranted and “Rogue One” turned out to be an absolute treat. Time will tell whether Disney’s Star Wars saturation wears thin, but as for now one thing is for sure – “Rogue One” is a sound reminder that the franchise is in very good hands.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS