Last year, The Force Awakens burst onto the screen at the end of the year and kickstarted a love of Star Wars for a whole new generation, while (sort of) making up for the dreadful prequel films that still feel all too recent to longtime fans of the series. The film was, in a word, fun; it had everything that made the original trilogy so enjoyable, while not being so wrapped in nostalgia that it felt old and recycled.
We still have another year before we get a look at the next chapter in the adventures of Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron but damn it we need something to hold us over until then! Enter Rogue One, a stand-alone film that sets back the clock a bit to before the events of A New Hope and some time after Revenge of the Sith. The Empire looms large over the galaxy, the Jedi are gone and Luke Skywalker has not yet had his fateful encounter with Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor has Princess Leia been captured.
Our protagonist is Jyn Erso (Oscar nominee Felicity Jones) who lost her parents to the Empire when she was just a small child. Her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is a brilliant scientist who is captured by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) while her mother is killed. Jyn manages to escape and survive, being raised by Saw Gerrera (Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker) a friend of her father’s and a character who appeared in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. At some point, Jyn and Gerrera got separated because when we meet her as an adult, she’s being held as a prisoner by the Empire.
However, Jyn is a valuable asset to the Resistance, something she doesn’t yet know. Not only is she the key to getting them a meeting with the reclusive Saw Gerrera, but she could lead also them to her father who is working on a top secret project for the Empire, something we know as The Death Star. She is rescued by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO, a former Imperial droid that was reprogrammed by the Resistance. What follows becomes a near impossible task of retrieving the Death Star plans from the Empire, and delivering them to the Resistance. Any Star Wars junkie knows that these plans reveal the tiny weakness of the Death Star. They’re joined by the blind, but exceptionally powerful monk Chirrut Imwe(Donnie Yen, who steals the film right from under his co-stars), his sidekick Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and Bodhi Rook (the always great Riz Ahmed from The Night Of and Nightcrawler) an Imperial pilot gone rogue.
The odds are stacked against Jyn and her crew; they know that once they go into this mission, they’re probably not coming out. As fans, and even just people who know where A New Hope picks up, we know the outcome. Still, the stakes feel high and it’s a story that makes the audience want to continue following along. The plans end up in the hands of Princess Leia who leaves them with R2-D2 and C-3PO where they end up with Luke Skywalker and blah blah blah. Rogue One fills in a very minuscule blank space of the much larger story, and while it’s not a story that demanded to be told in the same way that Anakin Skywalker’s did, it’s thrilling and exciting nonetheless. Rogue One is risky if for no other reason than being the first story in this saga that doesn’t feature a Skywalker at the heart of the plot. Even the opening crawl we’ve come to associate with all Star Wars films is gone here; director Gareth Edwards has totally committed to making Rogue One its own film, one that’s much smaller and more specific in scope.
Jones’ performance as Jyn is a complete 180 from Daisy Ridley’s Rey. In fact, she may have more in common with Harrison Ford’s Han Solo minus the charm, which matches the film’s grim tone. Jyn is hardened, thorny and not a particularly likable protagonist, but the actress makes her a character worth rooting for. We see how her experiences have contributed to building the wall she surrounds herself with, something she tears down as she selflessly puts the rest of the galaxy before her for the greater good. Where Rogue One falls flat is in the handling of the supporting characters, who don’t get nearly as much screen time as they should or require. Ahmed, who has proved time and time again he can hold his own against much ‘bigger’ names in Hollywood (like Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler) is given a backstory of being a former Imperial pilot, but his disillusionment with the Empire is never fleshed out. And while the mystery surrounding Baze and Chirrut make them interesting to watch, they don’t get the same exposition that Jyn does, which would have been nice given that they’re two of the best aspects of the film.This is something that The Force Awakens managed to do really well, but has the added benefit of having several other installments to devote to characterization. We won’t be seeing these characters again, so Edwards and screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz needed to devote more time to developing their stories.
Rogue One‘s bleak tone doesn’t cast a grim shadow over the entire film, however. Visually there’s a lot going on here; I can think of several shots that definitely deserve to be listed amongst the best shots in the entire Star Wars saga. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Bright Star, Let Me In) deserves a lot of praise here. Same for the costumes and much of the production design, which prove that bleak and grim don’t always have to mean grey, dour and uninteresting.
The action sequences are where the film really finds its footing though; the last chapter where Jyn and Cassian invade the beach base had me on the edge of my seat the entire time, with some strong visual effects work that will surely be in contention come Oscar time. And the ending, which may be too on the nose for some, threads this story permanently within the rest of the Star Wars canon, without feeling disingenuous. There are some minor appearances from characters, locations and spaceships that ultra fans will no doubt recognize. I won’t spoil who, where or what but they’re appropriately sprinkled throughout without being heavily relied upon.
All in all, Rogue One is a nice intermission in between the main story. It’s visually stunning, exciting and well-acted despite some flubs from the screenplay. It may not reach the highs of the originals, or even The Force Awakens, but proves that there are still stories to be told in the galaxy outside of the Skywalker family.
Oscar Chances: I’d be surprised if the film doesn’t make an appearance in the Visual Effects category. I don’t think it has the potential to match The Force Awakens, however, which broke through in categories like Editing and Original Score.