Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is unique for many reasons. It finds new and interesting ways to contribute to the Star Wars canon while simultaneously indulging in deeply satisfying fan service. It’s by far the most diverse cast ever assembled in the galaxy with a cast that includes a woman, Asian, Mexican, Muslim and a disabled person. Even with those wonderful attributes the most freeing aspect of Rogue One is it’s the first SW movie that is (nearly) fully removed from the Skywalker family.
Director Gareth Edwards has no shackles and takes advantage wherever possible. Sure, there are familiar trappings. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of Galen (Mads Mikklesen) – a former Empire weapons engineer who has left that life behind to live quietly as a farmer with his wife and child. When the Empire tracks him down (led by the ghastly, sniveling Orsen Krennic – played with a devilish grin by Ben Mendelsohn) he gets Jyn out of there just in time – leaving her orphaned in a cave.
You see, the Empire is building a weapon – with the ability to reign death upon moons and planets from its star like structure (maybe you’ve heard of it?) Galen Erso is the one engineer that can finish the plans for Lord Vader and the evil Emperor. Meanwhile as 15 years pass Jyn is raised by rebel ally/general kooky weirdo Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker – in his 2nd movie this year employing an accent from another planet.) Her upbringing has been anything but ordinary – as she’s turned into a mercenary of sorts, traveling the galaxy under the guise of anonymity doing odd jobs.
When the Rebel Alliance tracks her down they are after one thing. An Empire cargo pilot has defected and claims to have information from her father about the Death Star and how to destroy it. They must track down the pilot using her many familial connections to find the plans so…Luke Skywalker knows what to do in A New Hope.
Following this setup Rogue One becomes a deft combination of a heist movie, The Dirty Dozen with a dash of Saving Private Ryan. It is as gritty as Star Wars has ever been – including Empire Strikes Back. Edwards – for his faults in the past with character – has one of the best eyes for scale and grandeur. His first film Monsters used low-budget special effects (made on his laptop) to create incredible looking beasts in the woods of Mexico that dwarfed the small characters around them. In his Godzilla reboot he used his supersized budget to give us some of the best large-scale creature effects since the original Jurassic Park.
Rogue One employs similar tactics. Often the little group of rebels look like peanuts being chased on the beach by AT-AT’s. Star Destroyers are massive, intimidating space crafts – that look like Lucky Charms next to the grandness of the Death Star. And when the Death Star is in action – Edwards shows us it’s destructive power from the ground – mushroom clouds ballooning in slow motion, destroying everything in their wake.
What Edwards (with a few exceptions) finally gets right are his characters. Felicity Jones is a fascinating choice for Jyn and brings a wry and quizzical nature to the role. Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Alan Tudyk as the reprogrammed Empire Droid K-2SO, Donnie Yen as the blind ass-kicker Chirrut Imwe, Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus and even Riz Ahmed as cargo pilot Bodhi Rook are all given beats and some even arcs that I mostly found satisfying. Some get short shrift given the sheer amount of characters but all bring something unique to the equation.
Rogue One isn’t perfect, nor is it the best Star Wars film. It suffers a bit from prequel-itis, relying on our knowledge of the previous 7 films to fill in the gaps and events add up just a tad too neatly as the bridge to Episode 4. Still – the last 30 minutes are the best Star Wars has ever been. Edwards really goes for it, upping the emotional stakes to heights this franchise has rarely seen and the payoff is epic. After all the rumors of in-fighting and re-shoots you can rest assured, the Force is strong with this one.