It’s indicative of the whole film that the first scene in Rogue One is of a tiny, indistinct dot of a spaceship quietly flying against the backdrop of a planet’s rings cast in stark light and shadow.
The focus of these opening shots is the spaceship, which is a small part of a much larger picture and Rogue One is exactly that. Born from a single line of dialog from A New Hope, Rogue One follows the exploits and hardships of a small group of individuals as they steal and deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance. It’s this intense focus on the innate (relative) humanity of these people that makes Rogue One the kind of Star Wars movie I’ve wanted in a long time. By stripping the series of most of its original space fantasy elements, it makes room for nuance and shades of grey, complete with death and detail.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a woman who gets swept up in the machinations of the Rebel Alliance because of a connection she possesses to the Galactic Empire, a connection that could hold the key to striking a heavy blow to the Empire. It should go without saying that this plan is ultimately about obtaining the plans to the Death Star, and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say what happens to her and the rest of her motley band of Rebels. But this review will try to stay spoiler-free anyway.
However, knowing the ending of the film shouldn’t ruin it, especially when it’s as naked about its conclusion as, say, Titanic. A film like Rogue One is about the journey, about the people we meet, and the events that transpire on the way to that ending. In Rogue One we experience the gritty details of a rebellion, and how it’s not always as virtuous in execution as it is in its goals. We also see that the Empire isn’t nearly as broadly and homogeneously evil as they seem to be, because it’s comprised of individuals with their own agendas and beliefs. We also get to live out the grim act of an actual rebellion, as a war fought with desperate people and deadly weapons. It’s telling that even though Rogue One uses all the familiar trappings of Star Wars (blasters, lasers, spaceships, floating vehicles, etc.) it still finds a way to make these once-toyetic objects feel like weapons of war, scary and threatening.
Regardless of how it might handle itself, no Star Wars film can succeed without a good cast of characters to follow. Rogue One continues the tradition of having a varied group of characters, including one droid, but I can’t say that they are nearly as memorable as characters themselves as compared to the main line movies. Felicity Jones has the spotlight as Jyn Erso, and I had went into the movie hoping she would be a more take-charge character than she turned out to be. It wasn’t that she wasn’t without agency or ability, so she’s more in-line with the modern ideal of a female protagonists than she is not. But Jyn spends most of the movie tagging along with the other characters before taking a bit of charge in the end. I suppose its within theme that she feels swept up in a conflict much larger than she can comprehend, but I wish she didn’t seem like she always had to partner up with Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor.
All the other characters are fun and memorable, which makes their hardships within the movie carry more weight in the end. Donnie Yen as blind Force believer Chirrut Imwe is our strongest connection to the Force (besides Darth Vader) who illustrates a more everyman’s belief in the Force, and how it may seem foolish or superstitious to everyone who isn’t a Jedi. Jiang Wen is Chirrut’s ever-present comrade Baze Malbus who carries a big gun and serves as Chirrut’s foil, creating a nice buddy act together. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera adds some gravitas to a character who shows that a Rebellion can be even less nice than usual, but doesn’t get enough time for the audience to really care about.
For me, special mention goes to K-2SO, played by Alan Tudyk, who is a re-programmed Imperial droid and easily the character with the funniest lines in the movie. Personality-wise, he sits in a space between C3-PO and R2-D2. He’s well-spoken and a little anxious, but he also has a sardonic mouth on him that he isn’t afraid to use whenever the human characters are acting a bit foolish, and is endlessly capable of both debilitating strength and marskman savvy. Then there’s also Ben Medelsohn as Orson Krennic, an Imperial officer with close ties to the Death Star, fits nicely into the space between the grand “evilness” of the Empire (Darth Vader, the Emperor) and a more grounded take on corrupting power. His goals are more driven by personal ambition, pride and desire for recognition than simply wanting to see the Sith rise to the power or being drawn to the Dark Side itself.
However what makes the more-or-less bland and exposition-dry mix of “good guy” characters work, is that they don’t need to be particularly important. They represent collective hope in the face of perpetual and staggering adversity, as they identify not with their individual attributes, but with those they share. They are all loyal, they all stand for what they believe in, and they all provide an essential service to a story that, for the first time in a Star Wars film, is not left untold within its runtime. While the characters absolutely could’ve benefitted from some backstory expansion to add weight to some of the film’s key events, their interconnectedness as both morally-questionable and brave fighters for a greater good prevents their lack of personal history from serving to detriment the film.
Rogue One demonstrates that the story potential in the Star Wars universe is immense, and that there is room in the galaxy for different kinds of stories than use some of the familiar trappings of the main line movies. I hope they continue to try new things with old parts, but with less obvious connections and fan service nods.
FINAL SCORE - Rogue One
Rogue One replaces the space fantasy elements of Star Wars with a gritty and compelling sense of humanity and nuance that the series tended to lack in the main movies. While a few moments of fan service can mar the tone, Rogue One successfully captures a small part of a much larger story.