Review: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) Brings Ample Balance To An Awakened Force

I have to credit a large part of my nerdiness to my Dad. I remember my sister and I going over on weekends and he’d have comic books all around the house and a movie collection that could rival no other. Of course he gave us a proper education by having us watch the cult action favorites, new releases, and gems from his ever-growing collection of flicks. I was in elementary school during the time when word had started to circulate that the Star Wars movies were going to get a digital remastering. Mom (the other half of my nerd genes) wanted to make a big event out of it, we were going to go to the Uptown down in Northwest DC to go see it. Dad, upon hearing about this, sat my sister and I down, pulled out the VHS Box set of Episodes 4-6, and we marathoned the three the weekend before seeing it redone at the theater..

Flash forward to today. A brand new trilogy has begun (we don’t talk about the prequels), something I was hoping for as soon as I learned that at some point way back when, George Lucas had laid out a blueprint for 9 episodes in total. The EU in the books has been replaced by primarily the Disney XD Clone Wars and Rebels shows, and J.J. Abrams has rekindled my hope in a franchise that in the end isn’t ever going to fully let me down. Thus, director Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came along as the first example of this new EU moving forward onto the silver screen, early reviews were coming out, cosplay friends got into early screenings and I heard murmurs that the film was on par with The Empire Strikes Back as a favorite. I went and saw it, hell I was going to see it even if the early reviews crucified it.

At face value we don’t have much new as far as the pitch, the story isn’t anything too different from two other movies that came out in 2016. A ragtag group of rebels lead by uncooperative rogue Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and a special operative type Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) unwittingly find out that they have the ability to reveal a purposefully built flaw made into the Death Star in order to blow it up. Mads Mikkelsen plays Jyn’s father Galen who was forced to design the Death Star against his will. I really appreciate how this movie shuts up all the fan boys going “Why would the Death Star have such a critical weakness?? blah-blah-blah?…”. What it boils down to is that classic ‘People on a mission’ Seven Samurai-style plot with flavor in the casting provided by Alan Tudyk and Donnie Yen and a brief appearance by Forest Whitaker.

What primarily drew me to this film was the story of a person in the universe who isn’t a Jedi and has no inkling to be one. The movies have been a long episode of “Keeping up with the Skywalkers” until this moment. When you’ve got people that can shoot lightning from their hands, having a protagonist in Jyn Erso armed with only wit, a blaster and some useful Kali skills, otherwise creates a sense of vulnerability the audience can relate to. Her character naturally draws from what we loved about Han Solo and while that took her character far, either Jones’s portrayal or the script she had to work with didn’t do much create a character that felt believable beyond that. I found myself questioning her motivations when she was giving a big “rally the troops” type speech near the Act 2 to 3 transition.

When you look at it as a standalone film outside of the support of the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One was entertaining, but wasn’t much to rave about. I felt like the writing from the end of the first act until the middle of the second was a bit chunky, and character motivations across the board were murky. We have all these characters joining forces, but aside from getting stuck in a cell with each other for a sequence why are they motivated to go on a suicide mission? When compared to another ‘Men on a Mission’ movie that came out back in August of last year, Suicide Squad, we have Amanda Waller providing the group with clear motivations and stakes to cooperate against their better judgement. In the end the writing trudges along enough to keep our story flowing, and despite the darker nature of this story, moments of comedy pop up between the characters to help bring up the mood. Outside of the writing I had slight nitpicks. There wasn’t the iconic scrawling text opener at the beginning of the movie and they utilized CG to animate the figures of Grand Moff Tarkin (the late Peter Cushing) and a younger Princess Leia. I found that decision rather unsettling (especially now with Carrie Fisher’s recent death) and a bit surprising considering Abrams’s decision to stick to practical effects, film stock, and puppetry for The Force Awakens. We could have had a replacement for Tarkin and a double with creative angles for Leia and I think the audience would have been fine with it. We also have the lack of a John Williams-composed soundtrack which to my understanding has bothered fans across the board, but perhaps we could chalk that up to Mister Williams being busy composing Episode VIII. That’s really the best reason not to have him on Rogue One.

Despite all the flack Vox‘s review got for saying it was “the first Star Wars movie to acknowledge the whole franchise is about war” I’d say they are right. This entire time we’ve followed the Generals, the special ops, droids and masked clones in armor who have blown up, or gotten limbs cut off that instantly cauterized, but we never see much suffering, all sparks and oil, no blood. Until now our heroes can easily block lasers with lightsabers. In Rogue One even the one force-sensitive individual is not able to stop blaster fire. Sure Disney made Gareth Edwards reshoot a large chunk of the film for being too dark to get a PG-13 rating, but I think the one message Rogue One nailed over any of the other movies is that war is an ugly kind of hell. Characters are vulnerable. The action seems more real and visceral than we’ve ever seen before. We see Rebel troops actually look like they’re clearing rooms and move as a unit because they know they have to rely on each other to get home. The stuntwork for Rogue One was phenomenal. The portrayal of the larger action sequence during Act 3 felt more like they were battling on the beaches of Normandy than on a fictional planet. Director of Photography Greig Fisher really inserts us into an alien world that feels all too familiar with his work. He makes us feel in danger when we should and settles the mood visually when the audience needs to take a breath.

Overall the movie is worth a watch. Do I put it up there with The Empire Strikes Back? No, most definitely not, but I believe it was a solid popcorn flick to check out. I knitpick primarily about the writing because I hope that my one tiny voice echoing across the internet can help let Abrams know that he’s taking this franchise in the right direction, but he’s still gotta crank up the craftsmanship a bit and jump away from formula before he can leave his mark on the universe.