Before dissecting Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, here’s what you all came here for – YES. Yes what? Yes, Rogue One blasts its way into sci-fi relevancy by targeting the spectacle aspect that Star Wars devotees so fervently demand. Director Gareth Edwards shuttles fans past horizons they’ve yet to fathom, blowing The Force Awakens‘ digital artistry clear out of the water via a concentrated Death Star energy blast (he’s the man behind Godzilla/Monsters, why are you surprised?). Stakes are raised, hope fights governmental oppression and a feisty writer’s room lays claim to what some will dub the bleakest Star Wars entry yet – one with searing social relevancy (deny all you want, Bob Iger). It’s not a perfect ride, but it’s aggressive and triumphant once all the opening kinks are worked out…
Without spoiling too much, Edwards’ renegade offshoot follows an orphaned girl by the name of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). She’s sent into hiding when Empire officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) forces her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), back to work building him a Death Star, and fifteen years later, Jyn finds herself fighting alongside the Rebel Alliance to destroy the architectural behemoth that her father helped create. Jyn must locate Galen (Diego Luna’s rebellion officer Cassian Andor acts as a sidekick), learn his secrets and destroy Krennic’s planet killer if there’s ever to be peace between galaxies again. Failure isn’t an option, just like survival isn’t guaranteed.
To no surprise, Rogue One is a veritable gold-mine of nostalgic riches for Star Wars fans. Recurring characters and classic cameos raise surface-level hairs, but an even deeper connection pulls direct lines from previous Star Wars installations and re-purposes them for added homage. Cheers erupted in the theater when familiar leaders called out their X-Wing squadron colors or when prequel ties serviced main canon characters, prickling excitement on brand recognition alone. It’s never overbearing, but Edwards knows how to throw a few bones to his rabid audience.
Where Star Wars: The Force Awakens leans heavily on fan-service, Rogue One finds its own red-blooded rhythm. New storylines are explored while existing arcs are respected, while exotic locations stage unfamiliar battlefields for more laser-danger shootouts. Edwards swaps dusty Tatooine deserts for a lush, palm-tree island paradise during Jyn’s Empire assault, building out the Star Wars world through never-before-seen lands. Atmosphere plays a huge role in Rogue One, and from rainy jungle terrain to crystal-blue beaches, Edwards always explores fresh visual aesthetics.
Donnie Yen goes all staff-to-face when engaging with Stormtroopers, injecting martial arts choreography into a franchise ruled by blasters and glowing luminescent particle swords. In fact, the concept of Jedi powers is largely ignored for a more human battle in Rogue One (sans Yen’s blind cracks and chants), focused instead on grit and willpower that leads fed-up rebels against a powerful, suffocating evil. Oh, and did you know Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) cracks puns now? Seriously. Rogue One wanders beyond the walls of previous construct – where Vader can be compared to CSI: Miami‘s Horatio Caine in this brief comedic aside.
As mentioned above, when Rogue One hits its stride, warp-speed excitement blazes a debris-dusted path – unfortunately, that’s not until somewhere during Act II, after the “Rogues” have assembled in Suicide Squad fashion. One’s a defective Empire pilot (Riz Ahmed), two are bro-tastic battle buds (Wen Jiang and Donnie Yen), another a smartass, no-filter robot (K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk) – all of whom pair up with Jyn after a series of (un)fortunate events during an incredibly choppy beginning.
We cut from planet to planet, blowing through exposition that rarely develops characters past their weapon of choice. Edwards knows how strong a third act he has, but fumbles dramatic seeds planted later on by never nurturing their growth as a team casually forms. Strangers become bonded allies seemingly overnight, breezing past emotional connections that might have contextually developed better-laid relationships (as little as they do matter to the film’s final endgame).
Luckily for Edwards, Act III punches into a gear that throttles forward with energy, excitement and courageous sacrifice. X-Wings and TIE Fighters zoom overhead as Jyn infiltrates a heavily guarded Empire base, while ground forces exchange red-colored ammo below. Fights are fast and furious, backed by the refusal of many to accept a terrorist regime as justice.
Compared to other Star Wars battles, Rogue One asserts itself dominantly throughout a lengthy final siege bursting with the lionhearted rebellion spirit that feeds off an underdog’s perseverance. Just to see Blue leader swoop down and incapacitate a tumbling AT-AT walker sends a spine-tingling chill, as Edwards nails large-scoped warfare both on the ground and high above in outer space. Think of this as the Saving Private Ryan of Star Wars lore – hard-hitting action that chews up and spits out both rebellion and Empire forces.
Felicity Jones and her celestial band of mercenary patriots are a welcome addition to rebellion forces, just as Ben Mendelsohn asserts himself as a ruthless Empire fashionista (seriously, cape game on point). Mendelsohn’s snide charisma and obsession with power makes him an easy fan-favorite, like a Grecian emperor giving the thumbs down to entire plants facing his green death beam. You’ll love to hate Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, just like you’ll love to love Jones’ daring Jyn Erso and her warriors of the light.
Each plea for rebellion action becomes more impassioned as Jyn completes her transition into the gun-slinging, wall-scaling Rebel daredevil who bares the weight of her father’s decisions, aided by Luna’s blind militaristic dedication and the weapons of many. Her’s is a rallying cry that morphs Rogue One from typical Star Wars fantasy dramatics into a weightier, more devastating universe where Tudyk’s real-talking robot can’t break tension for more than a few seconds (K-2SO always has a witty one-liner stored). Note: this is not a detractor, and once again dictates how Edwards leaves a devastating footprint on George Lucas’ historic tale.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story suffers from a clunky, too-many-moving-parts introductory period, but once characters are established and battle plans are laid, Gareth Edwards scales epic scenes of interstellar world-torching. Jyn Erso is able to carve her own path, avoiding the shackles of existing details while fighting an evil (Orson Krennic) who merely interacts with the Vaders of the world, and completes his own arc. For once, we get a blockbuster film that expands existing worlds while remaining neatly contained all unto itself (Rogue One). Everything looks gorgeous (streaking aerial dogfights/massive floating ships/impressive set architecture), action rings with a warrior’s intensity and performances are strong (when not undercut by unfulfilled story aspects). It’s more than enough to appease Star Wars fans, but Edwards’ intergalactic firestorm is also good enough to stand as a mainstream success all in its own right – reshoots and all.
Rogue One makes up for a shaky first act by punching into overdrive for an outstanding third act battle sequence that overwhelms in scale and intensity.