I’m going to keep this mainly spoiler free, but if you somehow haven’t seen Rogue One yet and really don’t want to know anything at all, I would recommend not reading on.
I would like to preface this review by stating that I am unequivocally one of the biggest Star Wars fans in the country. I don’t mean this as an exaggeration – I have a collection of Star Wars memorabilia worth over $1000, and a Millennium Falcon tattoo. Seriously, it’s a pretty big tattoo. I feel as though that gives me some credibility for this review. Star Wars has been a huge part of my life since I was just a kid. Even before the much maligned prequels were released, my dad had shown me all of the original trilogy, and I was captivated by these fantastical adventures in a galaxy far, far away. As a young kid, I personally loved the prequels for their sense of joy and fun – this is an unpopular opinion amongst Star Wars fanatics, and one I try not to voice all that often. In hindsight, they’re not great films, but the sense of wonderment that flooded through me when I saw those movies, and the escapism that they provided meant so much to me at the time. I got that feeling again when I saw Rogue One – that feeling of being captivated and transported to a larger universe for a couple of hours, the real world melting away around me as I was absorbed in the Star Wars world yet again.
As many diehard Star Wars fans did, I felt pretty skeptical when Disney purchased the franchise a couple of years ago. The money making Disney machine was sure to exploit the franchise for maximum profit, the way they’ve done with their Marvel properties. Lo and behold, they certainly did exploit the beloved Star Wars universe with 2015’s The Force Awakens – a nostalgia laden film filled with weak characters that was essentially a rehash of 1977’s A New Hope, designed to both reinvigorate the franchise and to build the foundations of a new trilogy of films. Even with the returning original cast and Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan on deck with new talent like the amazing Adam Driver, the film wasn’t really the return to form that the franchise needed. While commercially and critically lapped up, there were those in the fan community who felt cheated by The Force Awakens, which mainly seemed like a past film referencing affair designed to appease fans old and new. It didn’t really bring any true heart to the proceedings, and this was its biggest downfall.
Exactly the opposite is true of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The first of many planned spin-offs from the main saga, Rogue One is an incredible movie that embraces the mentality of a war film, while also retaining the fun, and somewhat flamboyant energy of a classic Star Wars film. Rogue One does not exist in a vacuum – story and aesthetic wise, it is greatly influenced by the universe that it is a part of. But it still works as a stand alone movie in a way that The Force Awakens did not. I went to see Rogue One with a friend whose only Star Wars experience had been The Force Awakens. They found that movie to be confusing, and felt like there was too much backstory to enjoy it having not experienced the other films. But they left the cinema after Rogue One ecstatic, and wanting to see the original trilogy. I think that sort of a review speaks volumes about the quality of the movie.
The events of Rogue One are essentially the story outlined in the opening crawl of Episode 4 – A New Hope. A group of rebels must steal the plans to the new super weapon being constructed by the galactic empire, the suitably named Death Star. One of the most beloved elements of A New Hope was the idea of a ragtag group of freedom fighters banding together in the face of adversity, and insurmountable odds. This was reflected fantastically in Rogue One, and a sense of hopelessness tinged with determination runs through the movie. Though it gets off to a rocky start, jumping between time periods and planets, Rogue One quickly finds its feet as a self contained story about an unlikely group of heroes planting a seed of hope for the rebellion against the empire.
I was worried about Rogue One, because I thought that it would tamper with A New Hope too much, seeing as the events of the former were to lead directly into the latter. But this concern was unfounded, as the elements of Rogue One‘s story that crossed over with A New Hope actually add further gravity to that film, in many unexpected ways. The flaw that the rebellion exploits in the Death Star in order to blow it up was always a contentious point amongst Star Wars fans – why would the empire make such a stupid mistake as to let their monolithic space station be destroyed so easily? The answer is heart wrenching and hugely satisfying. The film has an incredible ensemble cast and each character is allowed proper space to develop, giving them each a satisfying story arc, which is an impressive feat. Jyn Erso, the film’s central character, is picked up by the rebel alliance because her father is one of the lead engineers on the Death Star project. Her abandonment and trust issues give her character a complex depth, and she is easily the stand out cast member.
One of the best things that Disney has done in taking over the franchise is implementing a stronger focus on female characters – something past movies have always lacked. However many people took issue with The Force Awakens lead character Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley. The most common criticism was that Rey was a “Mary sue” – a character who was too perfect, so much so that she was no longer believable. Luckily, this is not true of the Jyn Erso character. Though she is tough and smart, she is also deeply flawed, which allows her to resonate more with the audience.
Nods to the original trilogy abound, with small references and characters cropping up all over the place. Even the prequel trilogy gets a few nods, with characters such as alliance general and Princess Leia’s father Bail Oregana joining the throng. Subtle references to the animated TV series Star Wars: Rebels are included for the eager eyed fan, and there is no shortage of cannon fodder for both the casual and obsessive observer. This is the first Star Wars film that has not featured a Jedi as a central character, and surprisingly, it pulls this off superbly. Though the force does have a part to play in the story, it is a small and well handled one. The focus of this film is the gritty realities of war, and the sacrifices that need to be made so that (a new) hope can prevail. It is a moving, and very human story, even if it is set on alien worlds. In fact, a CGI rendering of the long-deceased Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin character comes across very naturally and organically – far more so than the universally despised CGI of Jar Jar Binks in the prequels.
Perhaps the most outstanding element of Rogue One is the match in aesthetic between this film and the original trilogy. The end of Rogue One leads directly into A New Hope, so naturally when I got home from my screening at midnight, I watched A New Hope, in all its 1977 glory. The seamless transition between the two movies blew me away, and how easily it worked makes Rogue One essential viewing in any Star Wars marathon from now on. Darth Vader is used sparingly but excellently in Rogue One, and the events of the film add so much weight to his behaviour in the opening minutes of A New Hope. In fact, every scene in A New Hope has so much additional weight to it, now that we are aware of all the hardship that led to those events, thanks to Rogue One.
All in all, the first Star Wars spin off movie quelled many fears I had about the direction in which the franchise is heading. Although there is still a long road ahead of us (Disney have at least 10 planned movies over as many years) Rogue One is very promising. It looked and felt like a Star Wars movie, and did not pander to fans, but was respectful of them. It can be viewed as part of a larger story, or as a standalone affair, and whether you’ve never seen a Star Wars movie or you’ve loved them for years, there is a lot of joy to be found here.