The first experiment in the burgeoning ‘Star Wars’ franchise, the first test of Disney/Lucasfilm’s expansion of the brand, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,’ manages to succeed on multiple levels. The film and its’ director, Gareth Edwards (‘Godzilla’), were given a chance to play in the prequel sandbox, telling a standalone tale of the first rebel victory over the Empire, a battle referred to in the original 1977 film’s opening crawl that ended with the successful theft of the plans to the Death Star and its’ eventual destruction. This attempt at introducing new characters to care about, feature vehicles, locales, and extended cameos both familiar and new, as well as craft a compelling plot where the overall outcome is already known seems like the difficult task Lucas’s prequels had before them twenty years ago. Edwards, his talented cast, screenwriters, special effects team, and crew manage to create a film that can stand proudly next to the original trilogy as grand adventure and perfect blockbuster entertainment, while effectively opening up a galaxy of possibility for future stories surrounding characters outside the Skywalker aura.
Eschewing the scrolling yellow type now reserved for the saga films only, ‘Rogue One’ instead opens with something no other ‘Star Wars’ film contains – an extended flashback that introduces the film’s main villain Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn in full-on, scene-chewing, hierarchal ladder-climb mode) and the deep seated personal ties he has to the film’s main hero, Jyn Erso (another welcome injection of subtle feminine power in Felicity Jones). Flashing forward a number of years later and the audience finds Jyn a prisoner of an Empire at the height of its’ oppressive power. She is busted free by a rebel force that is not completely unified, a group disjointed due to some members’ more extreme insurgent methods, and they ask her to join a mission that is starting to become one of extreme importance to the fledgling Rebellion. It’s best to leave the coyly pot-boiling plot to reveal itself, one that contains plenty of nods to activity only alluded to in the main trilogy.
As the story progresses, Jyn, with rebel intelligence agent Cassian Andor (Diego Luna looking the part of a young, but weathered spy) and his partner, a re-programmed, 8-foot tall imperial droid named K-2SO (an all CGI character brought to perfect surly performance capture life by Alan Tudyk – really the only source of welcome comic relief in an otherwise bleak movie) meet a variety of interesting characters and get into skirmishes of exciting action. This certainly evokes the general sense of these types of ‘Seven Samurai’/’Dirty Dozen’ type movies, but it does so in the Star Wars style, complete with lived-in alien designs, amazingly realized sets, and some of the most beautiful and iconic vistas/landscapes in any science fiction epic. The final arc is one of the most exciting, affecting battles in this type of film and actually measures up and compares to the best dogfights and ground fighting portrayals in historical war films.
Make no mistake, ‘Rogue One,’ is presented as a serious film within a fantastical franchise – as much as it is entertaining in the ‘Star Wars’ fashion, Edwards, cast, and crew root their addition in gritty war aesthetic. He utilizes hand-held cameras and simulation cockpits to put the audience directly alongside the soldiers and pilots in the fray. The wide, long-lens shots of the new locales, the Death Star juxtaposed against various planets and horizons, and the swooping propulsion of the shuttles, transports, and fighters provide breath-taking, iconic symbols of a movie series that evokes visceral feelings of overwhelming oppression and the emergence of a sliver of HOPE . . .
Directed By: Gareth Edwards
Written By: Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy; Story By: John Knoll & Gary Whitta
Running Time: 134 min.
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A