To me, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) was even more of a risk than The Force Awakens (2015). It’s easy enough to essentially rehash the best elements of A New Hope (1977) for both nostalgic viewers and neophytes of the franchise. But Rogue One’s concept – to remove viewers from the main narrative of the Skywalkers’ family drama and focus on a group of unknowns to expand Star Wars’ universe even more – was a huge undertaking for Disney. I’d say Star Wars’ fan base is one of the more hostile out there, perhaps behind diehard defenders of the current run of DC movies. Rogue One, to me, is everything I want in a Star Wars spinoff: a gritty heist mission in the same vein as Ocean’s Eleven (2001), set in the Star Wars universe, about the brave heroes who give the Rebellion their first major victory against the Galactic Empire? Sign me all the way up and color me hype.
Rogue One opened to critical success, and was polarizing enough to spark intelligent conversations on whether or not the film truly builds on the universe and supports the franchise or comes off as a straight cash grab. While I think anything pertaining to Star Wars can be automatically written off as a cash grab, I think Rogue One is nothing short of political/science fiction filmmaking done right while still respecting a beloved franchise that is now 40 years old. It completely sidesteps Star Wars tradition and disregards an opening crawl in favor of a cold open to introduce Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is thrust into a conflict with the rebels and the Empire due to her father being the leading engineer behind the construction of the Death Star; a super-weapon ‘planet killer’ that prompts a Mutually Assured Destruction mentality as word spreads throughout the galaxy about its construction/completion. From there, we are brought down to a level of Star Wars not seen outside of a cancelled Star Wars 1313 video game. The Galactic Civil War has been going on nearly two decades – resources have been exhausted and the Empire has a white-knuckle grip on just about everything. The set-pieces really put this dystopian visual on display for viewers. After being accustomed to the glamour of sci-fi metropolitan architecture and sweeping landscapes of water and countryside, it is interesting to dive into the ugliness that can be swept under the rug of the galaxy. Visually, Rogue One works on a completely different level than its predecessors, but it’s the emotional punch that really seals this movie for me as one of my three absolute favorites in the franchise.
A lot of critiques on Rogue One center around the ensemble cast being too voluminous for every character to get their due. I happen to disagree with this; I think everyone in Rogue One is integral to the climax/resolution of the film and everyone has a purpose in this fight. Jyn’s connection with her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) and the idea of love in general – how we define it/let it define us – is the driving force behind the movie. Galen doesn’t have a great amount of screentime but Mikkelsen completely owns all of his scenes. I’m convinced that if you didn’t at least tear up when Jyn is watching Galen’s hologram message, you’re not human.
The remainder of Jyn’s team consists of one of the most diverse casts of 2016: from Diego Luna, a Mexican heartthrob, to Wen Jiang and Donnie Yen as Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe, respectively. It’s open to interpretation, but I viewed Baze and Chirrut not as a buddy-buddies but more as life partners and it resonates more each time I watch this movie. Even Ben Mendelsohn’s Director Krennic garners some sympathy as he watches his achievement (the Death Star) taken from him under the command of Grand Moff Tarkin – portrayed by a seemingly resurrected Peter Cushing via CGI and Mo-Cap technology. I’m happy Tarkin is able to make a cameo and I’m even more happy it is brief. I’m not sure how I feel about literally raising deceased actors from the dead – seems a little too much like playing God to me. While Tarkin’s cameo comes as a surprise, the marketing team lets audiences know full well that Darth Vader is going to make an appearance in this spinoff. I think this, and bringing back James Earl Jones to voice Mufasa in the Lion King remake, has cemented him as the greatest voice in all of Hollywood. People will argue Morgan Freeman, but has Morgan Freeman ever been cast in the same role twice – decades apart – out of pure respect?
Rogue One takes notes not only from its own source material, but also from the likes of Apocalypse Now (1979) during the climax on the shores of Scariff, and Stanley Kubrick’s work – both Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with regard to the cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s beautiful composition. One can make an argument that every Star Wars film is influenced in some way by Seven Samurai (1954) and Rogue One supports this even more, along with being influenced by The Wizard of Oz (1939) – another film that George Lucas clearly took notes from for his 1977 blockbuster.
While it’s a Star Wars film at heart, and there is a pre-established dichotomy of Star Wars the FILM vs. Star Wars the FRANCHISE, Rogue One finds an incredible balance and fills in gaps between Revenge of the Sith (2005) and A New Hope (1977), even if that gap is the last two weeks before Leia is taken captive by Vader. These movies need to sell action figures and bedsheets, that’s a given when dealing with Star Wars. These products, however, should be a byproduct of the movie, not the other way around in the manner of the prequels. Rogue One is a great movie AND a great toyline. It’s a spoonful of sugar, there’s no denying it – especially with cameos from Tarkin, Vader, and none other than Bail Organa (the great Jimmy Smits). Beneath that, Rogue One is a movie full of hope – despite the grim circumstances that have to take place for there to even be a Rogue One. With great action and one of the best ensemble casts assembled by Disney, it has set the gold standard, now, for the next line of Star Wars anthology films to eventually make their way to the big screen.
Last thing: if you didn’t like the Vader scene at the end you’re lying to me, your friends, your family, or you’re just not a Star Wars fan and need to go home and rethink your life.