Star Wars reviews: Rogue One

The new Star Wars movie Rogue One was enjoyable. While I liked The Force Awakens, I nevertheless felt that Disney played it very safe with their first installment since acquiring the franchise.  Rogue One, in contrast, does attempt to stretch out in different directions.

Rogue One reveals how the Rebel Alliance stole the plans for the Death Star from the Empire. Despite the fact that it is set immediately before the events of the very first Star Wars movie, Rogue One successfully expands what previously felt like well-explored territory.

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1) Rogues Gallery

The protagonist of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) a woman in her early twenties who has spent most of her life on the run from the Empire. When she was only a child Jyn’s mother was killed, and her father, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), hauled off to work on the construction of the Death Star by the ambitious Krennic (Ben Mendelsen).  Jyn is recruited at gunpoint by the Rebel Alliance, which hopes she can lead them to her father.  Grim, brooding Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid, the sarcastic K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), are assigned to accompany Jyn in tracking down Galen.

2) Darkness Falls

Rogue One has been described as the darkest entry in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. While I think some people are overlooking Revenge of the Sith, which was hardly a laugh-fest, the point is that Rogue One is a very gritty movie by the standards of the franchise.

Whereas the original trilogy focused on the main figures of the Rebel Alliance, this is the story of the men and women fighting in the trenches against the Empire. Yes, they are motivated by the idealism of the Alliance, but after long years of conflict they are also driven by ruthless pragmatism.

When we are introduced to Cassian Andor, he is meeting with an informant, who tells him of a defecting Imperial pilot in possession of a message from Galen Erso. Unfortunately Andor and his informant are discovered by Stormtroopers.  To prevent the Empire from learning about the existence of the defector, Cassian, showing little hesitation, shoots his informant in the back and flees.

As ruthless as Cassian can be, he is positively tame compared to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) a militant member of the Rebel Alliance. Having spent nearly two decades fighting against the Empire, Gerrera is scarred, physically and mentally, consumed by paranoia.  His followers utilize guerilla tactics, launching attacks against Imperial forces in heavily populated areas.

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3) Parallel Lives

Jyn Erso is, in a way, a reflection of Luke Skywalker. In the opening scene Jyn and her parents living on an isolated farm, in hiding from the Empire.  There are definite similarities between this and how we first met Luke in A New Hope.  We even see Jyn’s mother with a glass of blue milk!

Luke, of course, was bored by the uneventful life of a farmer, and yearned for adventure. He couldn’t wait to leave and explore the galaxy.  Jyn, in contrast, spent a decade and a half scrambling about the galaxy, afraid and alone.  Instead of craving excitement, she yearns for safety and normality.  Having seen her mother gunned down by Stormtroopers and her father dragged off in chains, she would no doubt give anything to regain the quiet life on the farm she once shared with her parents.

4) Old Friends

It was nice to see a few familiar faces in Rogue One. Jimmy Smits returns as Bail Organa, a role he originated in the prequels.  Genevieve O’Reilly once again portrays Mon Mothma.  Nearly all of her scenes from Revenge of the Sith ended up on the cutting room floor, although they did later appear as extras on the DVD.  C3PO pops up long enough to utter one of his characteristic complaints.  Darth Vader also appears, once again voiced by James Earl Jones.  Via unused footage from the first Star Wars movie, Rebel pilots Red Leader and Gold Leader both participate in the Battle of Scarif.

Saw Gerrera is actually a character who originated in the Clone Wars animated series, and Forest Whitaker is set to voice him in upcoming episodes of the Rebels series, which is set a few years before this movie. Speaking of Rebels, there is also a brief glimpse of grumpy astromech droid Chopper, and The Ghost is part of the Alliance fleet.

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5) Let’s Get Digital

A contentious element for some fans was the recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin via digital effects. I felt that this started off quite effectively, but the more scenes that Tarkin appeared in, the more artificial he appeared.  It is understandable that Tarkin, who was originally played by Peter Cushing, had to be included in Rogue One in some capacity.  His omission would have been rather glaring, given his position as the commander of the Death Star.  Perhaps it would have been better to have used him in less scenes, or in a couple of instances have him communicate with his subordinates via hologram transmission.

I have heard, however, that casual viewers, people who were not huge Star Wars fans and who hadn’t seen the original movie in a number of years, did not realize that Tarkin was a digital effect. That makes sense.  If you go in knowing that Peter Cushing passed away back in 1994, of course you’re going to focus on how realistic Tarkin appears in Rogue One.  But if you don’t really remember the character from the first movie, you’re probably not going to pay as close attention.

In the final seconds of Rogue One we also see Princess Leia, looking as she appeared in A New Hope, via a digital recreation of a young Carrie Fisher. It is such a brief shot that the movie just about pulls it off.

6) Less Is More

Darth Vader is one of those characters who I have often felt is best used sparingly. He is such an iconic figure that overexposure both decreases his menace and results in fuel for parody.  I think it was a mistake for Marvel to publish an ongoing monthly Darth Vader comic book series.

Vader has two short scenes in Rogue One, and as result has much more of an impact. He first appears about halfway through the movie, with Krennic showing up at the Sith’s fortress to voice his anger at his authority being usurped by Tarkin.   An impatient Vader abruptly dismisses Krennic’s complaints, sending him on his way.

We don’t see Vader again until the very end of the movie. The Rebel fleet has received the Death Star plans and are about to retreat from Scarif when Vader’s star destroyer abruptly emerges from hyperspace, attacking them.  Boarding the Alliance flagship, Vader attempts to retrieve the plans, brutally cutting his way through the Rebel soldiers.  He is a terrifying, seemingly-unstoppable figure.  It was the first time since I was a little kid that I found Vader to be genuinely scary.

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7) This Issue: Everyone Dies!

Going in to Rogue One, I was half-expecting that most, if not all, of the new characters would die. After all, none of them were ever seen or even referred to in the original trilogy.  On the other hand, there was a part of me that really didn’t think that Disney would pull the trigger, and at least a few of the Rogues would escape to fight another day.

But, no, they all die. No cheats, no last-minute reprieves, no cop-outs.  Jyn, Andor, and everyone else die in the Battle of Scarif, all of them sacrificing their lives to transmit the Death Star plans to the Alliance fleet.

8) Nail-Biting Suspense

You might think that a movie with such a foregone conclusion would be a bit dull. Of course the Rebels are going to steal the Death Star plans; anyone who’s seen A New Hope knows that!

Rogue One, however, is so well done that I nevertheless found myself constantly on the edge of my seat. Gareth Edwards does an amazing job directing the movie, making it an exciting, riveting experience.

9) Be Careful Not To Choke On Your Aspirations

There are times when Rogue One’s reach exceeds its grasp. During the first 15 minutes the narrative jumps all over the place, switching between different characters on different planets, leaving me somewhat confused.

Several of the characters also felt underdeveloped. Saw Gerrera feels like he’s being built up to have a major role, only to suddenly get killed off halfway through the movie.  We aren’t given any real insight into why Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook has decided to defect to the Rebellion, other than he was somehow inspired by Galen.  Two of the Rogues, Chirrut Imue and Baze Malbuus are interesting characters, but we get very little background on them.

Jyn could also have used more development. She spends the first half of the movie very reluctantly working with the Rebels, but in the second half she has suddenly become the loudest voice in attempting to galvanize the Alliance to fight against the Empire.  Yes, Jyn has seen the Death Star in operation up-close, and she also doesn’t want her father to have died in vain.  But it still feels like a rather abrupt jump from one position to the other.  The movie could have done a slightly better job at explaining how she came to change her mind.

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10) A House Divided Against Itself

There has been some debate the last month over whether or not Rogue One is a political movie. I think that all great art (and even some mediocre art) can have a message, even if it might not have specifically been intended by the creators.  If there is a political lesson to be gleamed from Rogue One, one that can be applied to our real world, then perhaps it is this…

The Rebel Alliance that we see in this movie is a very diverse group, made up of cultures and species from numerous worlds. Unfortunately that means they have varying viewpoints and agendas, and as a result are often working at cross-purposes.  They all seek the same ends, stopping the Empire, but they disagree on the means.

Mon Mothma is hoping for a political solution to the injustices perpetrated by the Empire; she wants Cassian and Jyn to rescue Galen so that he can provide testimony about the Death Star to the Imperial Senate. That mission is immediately, and secretly, countermanded by General Draven, who pulls Cassian aside and orders him to assassinate Galen.  Other members of the Alliance, learning of the Death Star, are ready to capitulate, believing that they have no hope of winning.  And then there is Saw Gerrera, who is labeled an “extremist” by the rest of the Alliance, a man who dismisses his former colleagues as too moderate and ineffectual.

On the other side is the Galactic Empire. In spite of the individual ambitions of men like Tarkin and Krennic, the jockeying for influence, in the end they all share the same goal: the subjugation of the galaxy through force and terror.  Whatever their individual aspirations, they are nevertheless ready to work with colleagues who they may dislike for the promise of great power.  The members of the Empire are unified in their ambitions for control over others and their willingness to embrace utter ruthlessness.

It does not matter how noble the Rebels may be, how lofty their goals are.  Until the various factions that make up the Alliance set aside their differences, resisting calls for ideological purity, they remain unable to fight the monolithic Empire. It is only at the end, when the Rebels are unified on a common course of action, working together to achieve their goals, that they are finally able to become an effective opposition against the Empire’s tyranny.