Rogue One (2016)
written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, based on characters by George Lucas
directed by Gareth Edwards
Take a look at the first teaser for Rogue One, the prequel to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977, later retitled A New Hope), and one thing becomes abundantly clear: This film will break free from the conventions of the original 1977-1983 trilogy and their 2015 sequel Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The tone is darker, the cinematography artsier, the performances dead serious. We meet a new heroine, convict Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and immediately understand she’s an outsider to the Skywalker saga, one of countless bystanders – a criminal, in fact – who doesn’t have an overt stake in the battle between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance: When she says “Isn’t this a rebellion? I rebel,” she’s cynically mocking politics, not adhering to them. And yet we know fight for the rebellion she will, as we can see in the teaser’s final shot of Jyn disguised in Imperial uniform, intently looking at the camera as Forest Whitaker’s off-screen voice solemnly asks “What will you… become?”
I remember watching this teaser in my car as I waited for an appointment at a doctor’s office, and then watching it again several more times that day. It seemed like everything I had come to expect from a Star Wars movie – well, the promise of each Star Wars movie – and more: Mythology. A hero’s journey. An epic battle between good and evil. More than anything, it felt to me more naturalistic and real than anything I’d experienced before. Then, a couple of months later, a new trailer came out which ended with a wounded Jyn facing off against a TIE Fighter on top of a communications tower. I almost lost my shit.
The bad news? Some of these things did not make it into the movie. They were edited out and reshuffled for reasons unknown (writer Tony Gilroy was also hired to do reshoots). The good news is, it doesn’t matter. The overall feel of these scenes has been maintained in the released version of Rogue One, a film that somehow manages to fit nicely within the parameters of the Star Wars universe and yet forges its own separate and unique identity.
Rogue One tells the story of the group of rebels who were able to locate and steal the architectural plans to the Death Star, the Imperial weapon of mass destruction that figures prominently in the 1977 film (basically, without this band of outcasts, the Alliance wouldn’t destroy the space station, the Empire wouldn’t strike back, and Darth Vader wouldn’t be defeated or even find redemption. Whew!). At the center is Jyn, a young woman who as a child saw her mother murdered and her father kidnapped by Imperial forces. Now a conflicted adult, Jyn is approached by the Alliance so she can assist them in finding the schematics to the Death Star. Her journey from apathetic observer to resistance fighter is the backbone of the film, another strong female cut from the same cloth as Rey (Daisy Ridley) from last year’s The Force Awakens.
Better yet, as the covert group comes together – an Alliance captain (Diego Luna), a blind martial arts warrior (Donnie Yen), a mercenary (Jiang Wen), an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed), and a reprogrammed Imperial droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk) – you realize this is not only Jyn’s mission, but the whole group’s. All of them decide to risk their lives for a greater good, thus lending Rogue One a surprising emotional heft that makes it not only exciting but also thoughtful: You know these characters will probably not make it.
Rogue One is essentially a war movie, going from one battle to the next faster than the Millennium Falcon. There are skirmishes on the ground, soldiers running on a beach as AT-AT Walkers relentlessly advance on them, monumental space confrontations among hundreds of ships. While all of this is exciting, it sacrifices some character development. Luna is meant to be a man with a dark past, yet his motivations are never fully explained; Yen (Ip Man himself) has an intrinsic understanding of the Force, but it’s a mystery why; and as a rebel extremist Whitaker delivers a wildly bizarre performance that doesn’t do much for the plot (in the teaser he can be seen younger and bald, so some stuff was definitely changed around). Even Jones herself is a bit wooden and one-note in her portrayal of tough-as-nails Jyn. One wishes there had been a bit more love given to the interactions and perhaps a bit less to the admittedly impressive CG of Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, resurrected) skulking around.
In the climactic moments of Rogue One, Darth Vader makes a dramatic entrance and Princess Leia escapes with the plans, effectively setting up A New Hope. I could hear the audience in the theater – myself included – utter a gasp of delight, as 39 years between films were seamlessly connected. Kudos for pulling it off, especially in a finale that also asks you to accept the slaughter of all the main characters. Not since The Empire Strikes Back (1980) has a Star Wars movie evoked such a sense of palpable loss. Yet unlike that film, with its bleak ending of betrayals, frozen heroes, and daddy revelations, Jyn’s unsung team dies with the awareness that their actions have indeed made a difference. Rogue One is eye-popping and thrilling, but what gives it its edge is the human component of standing up for something… and finding yourself in the process.
Rating: ***½ | Very Good
Carlos I. Cuevas