Review: ‘ROGUE ONE’ Strives for a Different Tone and Mostly Succeeds

We’ll probably have a full roundtable about Rogue One up in the next few days with full spoiler talk, but until then here’s my scattered first impression.

Hello from 1977

So how much fanservice is too much? For some people, that limit was dashed in last fall’s The Force Awakens, a movie that only made references to other Star Wars movies. For others, any and all references to the Original Trilogy are welcome. For everyone else, there’s Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Rogue One for short), released Friday in theaters.

Alright, so some stage setting is in order. Set before the events of the original Star Wars (just how far before isn’t apparent until the very end), Rogue One follows the exploits of, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, a ragtag group of scoundrels and dissidents on a mission to stop the Empire. Our leads are Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of a kidnapped Imperial scientist, and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a rebel intelligence officer. The weakest stretch of the movie comes in the first 45 minutes, as we get scattershot introductions to both of them and our supporting cast. It’s not a bad thing to do, but it comes off extremely awkwardly, with a lot of quick cuts to similar expository scenes, and a lot of incoherent location setting.

The other core members of our motley crew are Bohdi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a skittish Imperial defector, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a pithy reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid, Chirrut Imwe (the great Donnie Yen), a blind Force zealot, and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s friend and a former mercenary. It’s this core cast that we follow around the galaxy as they sort of aimlessly bump into supporting characters like Jyn’s father Galen (a subdued Mads Mikkelsen), grizzled rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, overacting like crazy) and Imperial Weapons Director Orson Krennic (a very good Ben Mendelsohn). The basic plot, as you’ve no doubt heard, is the scramble around the Rebel Alliance’s discovery and capture of the all-important Death Star plans.

The Imperial Admiral uniform was always the coolest thing.

Rounding out the cast is an absolute treasure trove of easter eggs. Former series cast members, both living and dead, return to this film, including (but not limited to) Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa (who might as well have had a neon sign reading “EASTER EGG” above his head for all of his scenes), Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma, Peter Cushing’s digital likeness as Grand Moff Tarkin (which is actually one of the better performances in the movie, and I don’t mean that in a bad way), the various members of Red and Gold Squadron from A New Hope and of course, James Earl Jones as Darth Fucking Vader. Before this movie came out, I was ambivalent about his inclusion, even though it made sense, because it seemed like it would derail the proceedings — but he only has two scenes, and each one helps restore him to something closer to the world-beating, ass-kicking terror we all remember from The Empire Strikes Back (he even gets the movie’s best one-liner).

We couldn’t get my man Bodhi a new uniform?

Anyway, this isn’t a spoiler review, because this movie’s third act is actually good enough that I don’t want to spoil it (insert The Force Awakens joke here). It really is the first movie since at least Jedi to feel like it actually understands the concept of war. We didn’t care about seeing interchangeable CGI men get blown up by interchangeable CGI robots in the prequels, but here we get several honestly disquieting death scenes, a real sense of dread and some great effects work. That’s why you hire Gareth Edwards, I suppose. The characters are better than the dialogue they’re given, but it moves along well enough to get the job done, and a few performances here (namely Tudyk, Luna, Jones and Yen) vault immediately to the upper echelon of Star Wars acting jobs, which admittedly isn’t the highest bar in the world.

I won’t say too much about the movie’s themes, but one that I immediately picked up on and enjoyed was that the members of the Rebel Alliance aren’t entirely clean-cut goodie-goodies. Captain Andor’s existence as a character is proof of this. He’s an intelligence agent, a saboteur, and sometimes an assassin. In other words, he’s not a good man. Neither is Saw Gerrera, and neither are Jyn or her father. They’ve done bad things, and redemption is a major driving force for most of the crew. Personally, that’s where I like my Star Wars (it reminds me most immediately of Knights of the Old Republic II, Chris Avellone’s dark gem from 2004). I understand it’s generally a mythic endeavor, but the storytelling possibilities for this universe were always bigger than the standard pulp stuff of George Lucas.

SPOILER: AT-ATs remain cool

The tie-ins here are so much better than the ones that close out the last…seven hours of Revenge of the Sith, and the general effects and sets do an incredible job of recapturing the patchwork, gritty aesthetic of the original film. More than anything else, that original film is the biggest inspiration here (take note of how much the word ‘hope’ is used for a fun drinking game), but unlike TFA (which I still loved, for what it’s worth), they aren’t trying to make the same movie this time around. It’s a companion piece less than a rehash, and it’s as good of a winter blockbuster as you could ask for. Great Christmas Day sort of movie, if you want Christmas Day to be a little more depressing than you planned.

For our roundtable with Brian, Manu, and David, go here.

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