While The Force Awakens was certainly a critical and commercial success when it released last year, many complained that its success was due in part to its familiarity, using a familiar story structure to the now familiar A New Hope. More importantly then that, even fans agreed that although Episode 7 director J.J. Abrams had managed to recreate the feel of the original Star Wars films, his entry into the series play things safe, rather then adding new elements into the almost 40 year old franchise. With added pressure to correct the previous films’ mistakes, as well as supporting the existence of several upcoming side-story films, Rogue One shoulders the weight of many high expectations. But against such high expectations, the latest Star Wars film manages to deliver an exceptionally made blockbuster, that never lets its franchise ties eclipse its own merits.
The tale of the the brave rebels who stole the plans to the original Death Star already has plenty going against it, in as much as its a story where the ending is well known to anyone familiar with the original trilogy. But rather then try to keep the audience guessing as to the fate of our heroes, director Gareth Edwards instead chooses to frame the story as a look at the insurmountable odds our protaganist’s faced, and what it was that they sacrificed their lives for. While past films showed the war between the Empire and Rebellion through a series of skirmishes, Rogue One delves into the war at the heart of the original trilogy, looking in detail at the Empire’s subjugation of planets, as well as the more ruthless lengths the Rebels went to fight them. While the the film gives clear protaganist’s and Antagonist’s to root for/against, there’s no mistaking that our “heroes” are murderers and capable of bad things, grounding the conflict and reminding us of the real loss of life that is often forgotten in most Hollywood blockbuster films.
Much of this is thanks to the strong performances of our leads. Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso is a strong female action hero, who manages to remain realistically flawed and down-to-earth, even when put in fantastical scenarios. Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor gives us a different side of the rebellion, showing the men tasked with less-heroic acts, such as assassinations and acts of terrorism; many of these honest looks at the actions of the rebels are put on Luna’s performance, and he is thankfully up to task. The supporting cast all deliver engaging characters, despite sharing limited screen time, with Donnie Yen standing out as the Blind force-wielder Chirrut Imwe.
Part of what makes Rogue One such a risk, as well as its greatest triumph, is the dramatic shift in tone. As previously mentioned, many parallels to real-world wars are shown in the actions of the Empire and Rebellion. Our heroic rebellion now takes on the role of terrorists, more concerned in their goal of destroying the Empire at times then they are in protecting the galaxy. Likewise, the Empire now comes off as a more ruthless and imposing foe, willing to sacrifice innocent lives and planets in pursuit of what they view as “order.” Despite going to such dark material, Rogue One manages to keep either side from feeling black and white morally, a flaw many have cited with previous films. Likewise, the world returns to a dirtier look, making the alien worlds feel real and lived-in, which helps bring more emotion to the battles that take place within them. Should this film be a success, it’s likely that future films will have to address this dramatic shift in tone, which Rogue One thankfully benefits from.
The film’s new direction does cause some problems during the first act, as we jump between several planets and perspectives. While not engaging, there does come the feeling of a lack of connectivity between the events taking place, which makes it hard to invest in the events of the film early on. Once the second act begins, and our characters have come together for a defined purpose, the film quickly adds plenty of action set pieces and elaborates on the different dynamics between our characters. A few too many cuts might be made throughout the film, referencing characters and events in future films, but this never feels distracting to the immediate events going on, and manages to add context to certain characters placement in the saga as a whole.
Where Rogue One goes from good to great is in its final act, the climactic assault on the planet Scarif. A Saving Private Ryan-level depiction of war, here the darker tone benefits the film the most. Edward’s pension for filming large-scale events comes through, depicting how much the odds are stacked against our heroes, making every victory feel earned, and each loss that much more tragic. No character goes out in a blaze of glory either, keeping the film from turning death into a hollywood spectacle, and helping add to the emotional impact of each characters end. The finality of each death only makes the characters’ actions resound that much more, making Rogue One feel like an important story to tell, even with the well-known ending.
Rogue One is an important turning point for the Star Wars franchise, forgoing the more flashy direction of previous films in favor of a darker, more grounded approach. Only time will tell if Disney decides to explore this more in future films, but as it stands, Rogue One is one of the riskiest Hollywood films in recent memory, one that doesn’t compromise its darker vision in favor of mass appeal. This is Star Wars for the 21st century, and the future is bright in a galaxy far, far away.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9.5 Hopes Delivered out of 10