Different, but familiar. That’s the first thing I can think of to describe Rogue One. And that’s exactly what the Star Wars standalone movies, of which Rogue One is the first, should be. Having the liberty to break out of the mold of the saga films to play around in different styles and genres, while also feeling very much like Star Wars.
In Rogue One‘s case, it is a war movie. It’s a more intense and gritty experience than any Star Wars entry yet. The tone is more serious, the characters are raw, and the action is visceral.
Nothing exemplifies that approach more than Rogue One‘s final half hour. A spectacular sequence expertly cutting between an intense ground assault, a soaring space battle, and a suspenseful heist all at once. The balance between those three parallel threads as well as the characters’ individual roles in the large tapestry of this climactic battle is deftly handled, thanks to impeccable editing. So, too, is the incredible and well-staged action itself. This sequence is clearly Rogue One‘s centrepiece, and stands as its crowning achievement. Director Gareth Edwards and the rest of the crew have outdone themselves, topping all the battles seen in previous Star Wars films.
Rogue One‘s ending will leave audiences buzzing, but the rest of the movie holds up strongly as well. Visually, it’s a beautiful film, from the adoring shots of the Death Star to the enthralling cinematography and grounded feel of the various planets and locations. And Michael Giacchino’s musical score shines, a perfect mixture of new themes with a few well-placed nods to John Williams’s legendary work.
But Rogue One is not without flaws. For instance, the first act is pretty choppy and unstructured. It hops from one planet to the next as it hurries to introduce the film’s many characters, bringing them together in a less-than-seamless way.
But once assembled, Rogue One‘s cast proves to be pretty great. This is definitely Jyn Erso’s movie. Her strong arc from apathetic runaway to fervent rebel drives the story, carried by Felicity Jones’s performance. But the rest of the ensemble, refreshingly diverse despite the annoying lack of other women, are also highlights. Chirrut Îmwe, whose unique blend of fighting skills and unwavering spirituality, is an instantly memorable standout. K-2SO, the reprogrammed Imperial droid, provides most of the laughs in an otherwise grim movie.
Rebel pilot and intelligence officer Cassian Andor also undergoes a transformation, and his path to redemption is symbolic of one of the film’s main themes. Rogue One introduces murky morality to a story that was often accused of being too black and white. The Rebellion’s desperation is truly sold by the questionable and decidedly anti-heroic deeds they commit in pursuit of their cause. And the question of extreme measures and what lines should and shouldn’t be crossed hangs over the movie, down to the extremist resistance group on Jedha. What makes the Rebels’ last-ditch fight so effective is that it’s not just about stealing the Death Star plans. It’s about legitimately doing what is right, and being worthy of the nobility of their cause.
On the Imperial side, Ben Mendelsohn’s considerable talent allows Orson Krennic to succeed as a villain. I had hoped to see a little more of him, especially after having read the tie-in book Catalyst. Still, I enjoyed the cutthroat competitive nature of the Empire’s military hierarchy. It’s something the novels and animated series touched on, but the live-action movies never got the chance to depict.
And of course, Darth Vader. The iconic Sith Lord’s extended cameo is awe-inspiring and fan-pleasing in every way, down to his spine-chilling entrance. He is rightfully depicted like a horror movie monster, so that even someone new to the saga would feel the same fear young fans did in 1977. My breath caught in my throat whenever he was onscreen (no pun intended).
And that’s where the familiar comes in. Rogue One‘s placement in the timeline means it’s loaded with ties to the main saga, as it naturally overlaps with previously established elements. Of course, the biggest are those that relate to A New Hope. But there are also plenty of bits lifted from other parts of the universe, like the inclusion of Saw Gerrera from The Clone Wars as a prominent character. It’s the first time that a live-action Star Wars movie truly made me forget the concept of the prequel/sequel/original “eras”. By drawing from everything that came before, it brought cohesion to the saga.
Most of these ties enhance the experience of Star Wars fans, but I don’t expect them to be a hindrance to newcomers. The story is told in such a way that you don’t need to know who Mon Mothma or Darth Vader are to follow along and enjoy it as a sci-fi war movie. You’ll just get an extra thrill if you do.
There are, however, a couple of Easter eggs that don’t quite land. And some of the ones that do work are still a bit too “in-your-face”, as if the movie’s nudging you in the ribs while you watch. This could bother newcomers who might wonder why the camera’s lingering so long on this bit or that. Finally, there’s one major element borrowed from A New Hope that I loved, but whose shaky execution is sure to be a source of debate among fans for a long time.
Rogue One in many ways feels like an Expanded Universe novel or a comic book come to life. A standalone story with new characters that weaves through the canvas of the main films, acting as the connecting tissue between them, and daring to try something new. It is a welcome change to the Star Wars formula that ensures the longevity of the franchise. If this is the model for standalone films to come, then I welcome them with open arms.