Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelson, Alan Tudyk, Forrest Whitaker, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed
Director: Gareth Edwards
Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes
By Jericho Cerrona
In the world of franchise-building, multi-million dollar properties with existing fanbases, is there any reason to assume that Gareth Edwards's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would be anything more than just another cog in Disney's perpetual consumerist machine, bent on selling action figures while giving us that warm nostalgic feeling? Well, the good news is that the latest entry is a stand-alone vehicle with merely tangential ties to the original series, telling a tale operating on a much more intimate scale with new characters who have their own self-motivated goals. The bad news is that Disney, in their consummate desire to monopolize every single aspect of a particular expanded universe (ala the Marvel movies), have deemed it necessary to pad Rogue One with all manner of referential fan-service nonsense. If there was any Star Wars film which had the chance to be it's own thing apart from fanboy pandering, this was it. However, the studio powers that be, much like Imperial overlords, have wrestled control of the rebel forces that would have wanted something stranger, darker, and more idiosyncratic.
Still, credit should be given to Edwards (who also brought an operatic sense of fatalism to 2014's Godzilla reboot), for abandoning the shiny pop sheen of J.J. Abram's retro homage The Force Awakens and going full rouge in terms of tonal aesthetic. Instead of crisp, locked down cameras and aping Lucas's original trilogy, Edwards adopts a grainy, dirty visual look with handheld camerawork and occasional wide-shots, giving his picture a massive sense of scale. This provides Rogue One with a more lived-in grittiness, complimenting what essentially is a war picture dressed in a Star Wars uniform.
The script here was written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, with story credit from Gary Whitta and John Knoll, and it's cleverness rests in how it covers a major plot hole in the Star Wars franchise. We are introduced to a rag-tag group of rebels; led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Imperial defector pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), blind martial arts monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen), his armed buddy Baze (Jiang Wen), and comic relief droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Their mission is to retrieve the plans for the Death Star, which houses a built-in flaw designed by an unwilling architect (Mads Mikkelsen) who also happens to be Jyn's father whom she hasn't seen or spoken to since she was a child. What follows is a fairly straightforward mission narrative, with the crew coming together and working towards a common goal, bracketed by sequences of bloodless war-like carnage and messages of hope and brotherhood.
Unlike Lucas's prequels, which were generally overloaded with exposition and unnecessary backstories, Rogue One is thankfully short on character development. Like all of the Star Wars films, the characters represented are archetypes, but in this case, we learn about them through their actions rather than through montage, flashbacks, or expository dialogue. On the downside, Edwards's clear disinterest in fleshing out characters who are merely placeholders for a plot we already know the outcome to could be distancing in terms of audience investment. In reality, however, the characters in these films have always been archetypal blank slates which we filled out in our imaginations, only given small amounts of shading through the gifts (or lack thereof) of specific actors. Here, the cast do strong work with underdeveloped types. Felicity Jones brings a believable toughness and vulnerability to Jyn, Diego Luna feels like an unwilling officer forced to obey orders without all the rah-rah machismo one usually finds in characters like this, and Ben Mendelsohn cuts an imposing stride as a clenched-jawed bureaucrat with a flowing cape.
Less successful are the film's attempts at resurrecting old characters (in one egregious case, literally, with wonky uncanny valley CGI), and wedging in self-satisfied Easter eggs and cameos. These bits, while not taking up large amounts of screen time, feel unnecessarily shoehorned in to please elite fanboys rather than being a natural extension of the story. However, Edwards really gets to show his visual chops in the film's final 45 minutes, which feature extended aerial space dogfights, rebel insurgence battles on the ground, and a mini heist involving the stealing of the Death Star plans.
Rogue One's ambitiously mounted final act is executed with flair, moving between the various warring factions with a combination of judicious editing, slam-bang pacing, and eye-popping spectacle. There's even a moment late involving one of the series's most beloved villains executing havoc with extreme dark side of the force prejudice, and it's a rousing highlight. The mood here may be somber and darker than previous Star Wars films (including The Empire Strikes Back), but there's something sneakily subversive about Edwards allowing for piles of bodies and massive destruction in order to press the idea that sacrifice is never tidy, and that hope always has a cost.