In 2016, it seemed like there was a worldwide shortage of hope. On the very day that I went to see “Rogue One”, Carrie Fisher, best known for portraying Princess/General Leia Organa in the Star Wars films, died after suffering a massive heart attack on Christmas Day. Hope felt elusive, and while many of the slate of recent film releases had either been a little too dour or lackluster, it seemed like “Rogue One” was the last hope of the holiday season to get a little fun Hollywood-style entertainment back. With the film helmed by Gareth Edwards, who had the impressive 2014 reboot of “Godzilla” and featuring the most diverse cast to ever make up a Star Wars film, hope was restored. All signs pointed to this, the first stand-alone film of the Star Wars franchise, being a worthy entrant into the ever-expanding canon of the space opera franchise. It chronicles the theft of the plans for the Death Star that propels the narrative of the original 1977 film. But is it worthy of the hype and hope?
“Rogue One” opens with a tragic backstory for our main character Jyn Erso ( Felicity Jones); her father Galen (the great Mads Mikkelsen) is a former Imperial scientist who is trying to live in peace with his wife and daughter. Jyn’s mother is killed, and her father is taken back by Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Jyn goes to live in the care of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an anti-Empire extremist. Fast-forward years to Jyn as a young woman who is being broken out of Imperial custody by Rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Apparently the defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) has a message indicating that the Empire is completing construction on a weapon with the ability to destroy an entire planet, and both sides of the conflict are searching for him. Along the way, a rag-tag band that includes the blind Force-sensitive monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen), his angry gun-happy protector Baze (Wen Jiang) is formed that will eventually undertake the mission to steal the plans for this ‘Death Star’.
If there’s one main problem with “Rogue One” (which is not to say that it’s by far the only problem), it’s that the film moves at such a jarring, staccato pace that none of the characters get any real time to explore who they are. One moment, Jyn is a fiercely independent character who wants nothing to do with the Rebellion and then later, she’s giving stirring speeches about how the Rebellion is vital. One moment, Cassian kills a fellow Rebel in order to protect the larger mission. And there seems to be a point where the film wants to address the nature of war and resistance and how one person’s rebel is another’s extremist, but it never goes there. When I was watching the film, the two characters I felt most invested in were Chirrut (because Donnie Yen plays him with such verve and joy) and K-2SO, because if there’s something the Star Wars universe needed, it was a sassy robot who was also a total badass. I wanted more background on these characters, though. Why did Bodhi defect? What is the relationship between Chirrut and Baze? But the plot, as constructed by Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” films) and Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”), is so dense that it doesn’t afford the characters these moments. And as a director, Edwards seems much more determined to devote more time to spectacle rather than story.
Heaping a decent-sized dish of fan service, he stages some of the most incredible battle sequences that have ever been in a Star Wars film. This film is more of a throwback to the World War II films of the 60’s like “The Guns of Navarone” or “Where Eagles Dare” where every other film was about a secret mission to stop some major plot by the Axis, and it also succeeds in putting the “war” in “Star Wars” as never before. These films have always been sweeping space operas, but this film, the sense that no one is safe is omnipresent, largely since all of our main characters don’t appear in “future” installments. The final act battle is replete with moments of genuine tension, and that is pretty much one of the main things that keeps this film afloat. A more cynical heart than mine would say that this film is pretty much just a cash grab for Lucasfilm and Disney, and there is a case to be made for that, but what this film does do successfully, it does it in spades.
Before I go onto my final thoughts, I have to take a moment to talk about the big bad Sith in the room. Yes, Darth Vader is in this film and he is voiced by James Earl Jones, and there’s something about his scenes that is odd for me as a film-goer as well as a lifelong Star Wars fan. My instinct as far as Vader, is to want to fear the hell out of him, and as a member of the audience, that feeling is realized. But he also inspires some of the biggest (kind of) fist-pumpingly cool moments of the film as a fan. There’s something almost gleeful about watching one of the great, if not the greatest, screen villains of all time, doing what he’s best known for. And it exists in this strange emotional abyss that wants you to almost cheer if you weren’t so terrified by what he was doing.
“Rogue One” is best served by being a standalone film in the Star Wars franchise, because it’s trying to do a little too much, and to be honest, even in how busy the film is, I found myself nodding off a little during the second act. But even with all its flaws, it’s a film that, in the final analysis, is worthy of being in the Star Wars franchise. Sporting a terrific cast, some good performances, great set pieces and a good story, it’s not as entertaining as “The Force Awakens”, not as epic as any of the original trilogy of films, but it’s also not as trite and dull as the prequel trilogy.