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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

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The War before Episode IV.

While the pressure on The Force Awakens to successfully re-launch the Star Wars movie series was staggering, Rogue One:

A Star Wars Story now faces its own crucial moment of truth. Disney and Lucasfilm are looking to expand the Star Wars brand in a big way with spinoff films -- which are not part of the central, numbered, core “Episode” series -- and fans are looking at Rogue One to prove they can deliver satisfying stories in this realm. The very happy news is that fortunately, and thrillingly, the film completely succeeds on this and many other levels.

Set in the immediate lead-up to the original Star Wars (AKA Episode IV: A New Hope), Rogue One focuses on the Rebel Alliance learning about the existence of the Death Star and the subsequent hunt to steal the plans for the deadly battle station that could be key to destroying it. Which is to say, it shows – and greatly expands upon -- the information that was A New Hope’s backstory when it was released 39 years ago.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is not a member of the Alliance when the film begins, but a criminal – recruited by Rebel leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly, finally getting lines after the vast majority of her Revenge of the Sith footage was cut) to help find her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant scientist who has been coerced into working on the Death Star project in a crucial role. Teamed with valued Rebel operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Jyn’s mission will bring her into contact with other key figures like ex-Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and the extremist anti-Empire warrior, Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker). The mission also leads Jyn to cross paths with a couple of formidable fighters who weren’t part of the plan, when she and Cassian encounter Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).

A contradictory element of Rogue One is that while it’s the first standalone movie, it isn’t truly standalone at all, functioning as such a direct prequel to A New Hope, and weaving into that film’s plotline in many ways. It’s a tricky gambit, as this approach gives Star Wars fans plenty of familiar connective tissue from the start, yet also means Rogue One is treading on sacred ground and could easily feel like a hollow attempt to tie itself to a beloved classic. Given all that, the filmmakers (including director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, working from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta) are to be applauded for so deftly tying it all together, as Rogue One works amazingly well. There were plenty of stories reported about extensive reshoots, but the final product feels cohesive and focused and there are no onscreen signs of any issues.

“Wars” may be part of the title of this franchise, but the inclusion of elements like the Force and lightsabers always add a huge fantasy element to Star Wars as well. With that mostly discarded here -- none of these characters are Jedi or potential Jedi, though Chirrut is a true believer in the Force -- Rogue One brings much more of a true war movie vibe to Star Wars. There is a powerful “in the trenches” feel to much of the film, as we watch the core characters and their Rebel allies battle in the streets, in the forest and, memorably, in the tropical environment of Scarif. The visual language (not to mention specific props and sets) of Star Wars has been lovingly recreated, yet Rogue One still is able to have its own vibe.

That new vibe extends to how it breaks from many of the cinematic rules of Star Wars. There is no opening crawl, while the film includes elements like a time jump, flashbacks and onscreen text identifying different locations that the “Episode” movies have never used. These small yet distinct differences help the first Star Wars Story stand apart from what has come before, even as the story is still so rooted to A New Hope.

Rogue One’s strengths also include introducing a likable core group of characters that are easy to invest in – a key component given we meet so many new faces so quickly. Jones effortlessly holds the screen as Jyn, who’s put up a brash, stern wall to protect herself, thanks to a traumatic childhood. As Cassian, Luna projects innate charisma mixed with ongoing unease, as we see the Rebel Captain participate in actions he’s not always proud of in service of the greater good.

While the entire cast are strong, it’s Tudyk’s K-2SO who’s often the standout. This droid is sort of C-3PO’s dark, amped up counterpoint. Like Threepio, he has a knack for giving troubling statistics, but instead of speaking with a worried attitude, K-2SO – who’s an Imperial Droid who’s been reprogrammed by the Rebels -- has more of a resigned and often amusingly cruel and blunt approach. Some big comic relief is provided by this character, while Tudyk’s performance also gives him a sympathetic “soul” (if such a word is appropriate for a droid) as well.

Given the film is introducing so many new faces, it’s understandable that not all of Rogue One’s characters are given in-depth backgrounds, but there’s enough provided to root for folks like the endearing duo of Chirrut and Baze, and their action hero moments are easy to cheer on. There are a couple of cases though where it feels like a bit more backstory would have helped provide motivation – most notable, perhaps, with Bodhi, whose huge decision to betray the Empire, prior to the start of the film, doesn't feel fully fleshed out.

On the villain front, Ben Mendelsohn is perfectly smarmy (and right at home among the classic Empire portrayal from the original trilogy) as the ambitious but possibly overreaching Director Krennic. As for the much-buzzed about appearance by Darth Vader (once more voiced by James Earl Jones), I will simply say that his screen time is minimal but amazingly effective, adding to the character’s legend in wonderful and even chilling ways.

Rogue One is not shy on the Easter Eggs. Mon Mothma, Darth Vader and Bail Organa (the returning Jimmy Smits, providing nice tie-in to the prequel trilogy) are hardly the only established characters to appear in the movie and it’s hard not to grin at how other familiar Star Wars faces are incorporated. The vast majority of these appearances also make sense within the context of this movie’s setting and time period, with only one example leaping out as undeniably fun but pretty gratuitous.

However, one area in which Rogue One falters is tied to its numerous connections to the other films. Digital effects have been used to recreate an actor’s appearance from back during the original trilogy and, unfortunately, it doesn’t really hold up. The uncanny valley factor begins to take over, as there is just something unmistakably off and (literally) animated about this character’s face, and it becomes distracting when they’re on screen, making it hard not to wish a different tactic had been used.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The Death Star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The Death Star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Star Destroyer in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Star Destroyer in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Star Destroyer in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Star Destroyer in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Still Frame

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Still Frame

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Still Frame

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Still Frame

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Still Frame

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Still Frame

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Still Frame

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Still Frame

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Diego Luna (Cassian Andor) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Diego Luna (Cassian Andor) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Felicity Jones, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yenin Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Felicity Jones, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yenin Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Film Photos
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Still, Rogue One’s strengths far outweigh any trouble spots. The film is intense, exciting and emotional, with its last act building to a crescendo and offering one memorable moment after another. It's also commendable how Rogue One touches upon questions of what actions are morally acceptable in a rebellion like the one depicted here. From Saw Gerrara’s more extremist faction, to the Rebels themselves crossing some surprising lines, things aren’t nearly as black and white as they have typically been in this series. Not to say we get a deep dive on these topics, but for a Star Wars film, including these aspects at all is notable and leads to some impactful beats.

Rogue One also looks beautiful. Edwards has utilized his more grounded, embedded warzone-type camerawork incredibly well, while taking us through several terrific locations that expand the Star Wars universe – with Scarif, again, the standout, mixing its paradise location with some massive Stormtrooper vs. Rebels action set pieces. And those dodgy digital face recreations aside, the effects here are excellent, as we’ve come to expect from ILM. K-2S0 looks so good, it’s easy to forget he’s a CGI character, and the film’s big X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter space battle is mind-boggling. It’s easy to see why George Lucas is said to have loved Rogue One, as it so expertly recreates the world of his original Star Wars film, while using modern technology – something we know Lucas is a proponent of, of course -- to deliver even more amazing visuals.

The Verdict

Rogue One is a movie crammed with fan service, but when fan service is done this well, there’s little to complain about and much to adore. The film offers a remarkable recreation of the original Star Wars’ world, while exploring this universe from a different, edgier perspective than is the norm. It also expertly delivers thrills, tension and genuine stakes, despite the audience's prior knowledge that the movie’s central mission will be a successful one. Gareth Edwards has shown, with the first “Star Wars Story,” that these spinoffs can have plenty of life in them, adding even more excitement to Star Wars’ huge modern resurgence.

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