Directed by: Gareth Edwards || Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Screenplay by: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy || Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker
Music by: Michael Giacchino || Cinematography: Greig Fraser || Edited by: John Gilroy, Colin Goudie, Jabez Olssen || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 133 minutes
Perhaps the greatest thing about this modern age of cinematic universes and shared, extended, super-mega-ultra movie franchises for yours truly, is the rebirth of Star Wars (1977, 1980, 1983). As I’ve stated numerous times on this site, I don’t give a shit about most superheros who aren’t named Batman or Wolverine, and I find most comic book-adaptations bland and generic. That’s not necessarily a slight against the source material itself, but Hollywood has a tendency to water down any brand they have the moment they smell money, and if the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the gold standard in big-budget, graphic novel-adapted filmmaking, then count me as a non-fan. Star Wars, however, is a different story.
If you ever wondered why the original blockbuster franchise was so deliberate in its feature-film release schedule (e.g. 16 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace , ten years between Revenge of the Sith  and The Force Awakens ) despite its overwhelming cinematic influence and unmatched brand recognition, the answer to that riddle is George Lucas himself. Lucas could never seem to decide whether he wanted to treat the property as a product or a personal “auteur-project” first, and much of that artistic indecision and insecurity led to the industrial commodification of Star Wars in terms of merchandise, but veritable peaks and valleys in terms of box office visibility.
Thankfully, with the acquisition of Star Wars by Disney through its purchase of Lucasfilm, the franchise is in more stable, albeit more industrialized hands than ever. If non-comic book fans like me have to put up with years’ worth of marketing, discussion, and mainstream legitimization of properties I otherwise couldn’t care less about (e.g. Marvel), then it’s only fair I get to have a yearly Christmas celebration of new Star Wars movies, even if none come close to matching the franchise’s peak, The Empire Strikes Back. All I need is good, not great.
And that brings us to Rogue One, the first in the proposed line of Star Wars spinoffs, or anthology films, separate from their primary line of “episodic” installments. Rogue One follows the untold story of how the fabled Death Star plans first made their way into the hands of the rebellion’s Princess Leia and later, R2-D2. It is also arguably the first Star Wars film to be “plot-driven” rather than character-driven, relying on world-building and atmospheric conflicts to drive its narrative forward. Each of the main characters here, from quasi-lead Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) to Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to baddie Director Krennic (an effective Ben Mendelsohn) to Chinese-pandering characters Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen to former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), are in service to the main plot, not the other way around.
Much discussion has already ensued concerning the depth, personality, and likability of this ensemble cast in comparison to the franchise’s unforgettable classic characters in past installments (we’re ignoring the Prequels [1999, 2002, 2005], of course), but I feel these debates miss the point of the film; Rogue One plays more like a guerrilla warfare espionage-thriller than your standard science-fantasy adventure story. Rogue One (henceforth, RO) checks all the necessary fan-service and “used-future” aesthetic boxes it has to, but is otherwise uninterested in replicating, beat-for-beat, the same blockbuster formulas of previous films and most box office-friendly blockbusters in general, and that’s what I like about it. This change in storytelling style works because, unlike George Lucas with his infamous Prequels, director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Wreitz and Tony Gilroy (… as well as many uncredited contributors, I’m sure) are competent at designing an intriguing story, staging interesting battle sequences, and creating effective characters, even if they aren’t the stars of the show.
The only significant problems with RO have to do with its somewhat inconsistent, somewhat muddled editing and overall story structure, which may have to do with the much gossiped reshoots and alleged leadership arguments that took place this past summer (2016). Screenwriter Tony Gilroy is alleged to have had much influence in the final cut of the film, particularly its ending, and is said to have led the reshoots in lieu of Edwards. Reshoots in and of themselves are rarely a big deal, especially with big-budget studio films like this, but for someone other than the director to have that much (again, alleged) control on re-edits is unusual and, in my opinion, reflects in the theatrical release.
RO’s main weakness is its disjointed story and obvious re-edits. Forest Whitaker was featured prominently in the film’s marketing, but is barely in the movie itself, and both his subplot and relationship with Jones feel ancillary at best to the main plot. It feels like there’s an entire backstory missing here, given how much weight is placed on his character through expository dialogue, but never shown. Additionally, RO’s final act consists of the tropical island set-piece where the titular squad steals the Death Star plans, but their mission is intercut with an extensive space battle that is has little to do with our principle characters. None of our main cast is directly involved in this space battle, its action and choreography aren’t as interesting as the shootouts on the ground, and feels like it could have been excised from the final act altogether.
To that end, brief cameos throughout featuring classical Star Wars characters are inconsistent. Some are harmless, while others, including CGI re-creations of Peter Cushing as Gran Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher as a young Princess Leia, are distracting. Like the final action-scene with Darth Vader, they feel mysteriously shoe-horned into the the final cut.
Still, the theatrical release has much to offer in terms of memorable characters, terrific battle sequences, great location photography, and an overall fantastic use of the Star Wars science-fantasy aesthetic. My favorite sequence in the entire film takes place in a set that could pass for a modern day Near Eastern-war film like The Hurt Locker (2009) or Black Hawk Down (2001), where Luna and Jones stumble onto an impromptu urban war-zone where Imperial troops engage in a fierce shootout with anti-Imperialist insurgents. The staging, choreography, and editing of scenes like this and the aforementioned beach-storming feel in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly digital space-battle finale, namely in that the former are superior in all those aspects.
To that end, RO’s cast, while not as integral nor as memorable as The Force Awakens‘, give good performances, featuring plenty of comic relief in Donnie Yen as a Force-sensitive warrior-monk and Alan Tudyk as a sarcastic droid named K-2SO, and good chemistry between Diego Luna and Felicity Jones. Ben Mendelsohn could’ve used more screen-time, but his material here is solid and he has great scenes with both CGI Tarkin and Darth Vader. The ensemble format works well for this story, its obvious re-edits notwithstanding, with Forest Whitaker being the only castmember whose role feels wasted.
In the end, Rogue One is yet more proof that even a corporate owned Star Wars spinoff milking the series’ brand name is superior to a wannabe-auteur George Lucas project. For all the alleged Disney executive meddling, attention to storytelling basics and Gareth Edward’s penchant for grounded action-scenes see this first Star Wars anthology story to the finish line. It’s not exactly the raw, visceral franchise expansion that The Empire Strikes Back was and that some are making this out to be, nor is it the smooth blockbuster throwback that The Force Awakens needed to be, but it works well enough on its own terms. Put another way, that last scene with Vader kicking ass is more than a little hokey and sure isn’t necessary, but it sure does look cool, and it sure is memorable. I’d say that sums up the film as a whole, and that’s good enough for me. It’s a better “franchise-expansion” than Doctor Strange (2016), in any case.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Where as The Force Awakens was a solid sequel instead of the glorified fan-fiction that franchise devotees feared, Rogue One is big-budget fan-fiction done right, expanding on established iconography with stylistic changes where appropriate and a sense of scale that stays grounded, for the most part. The ensemble cast, lead by Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and Ben Mendelsohn, are supporting players rather than future fan-favorites, but they enrich Star Wars lore in the right ways.
— However… Rogue One’s story feels truncated in certain sections and with regards to certain characters, namely Forest Whitaker as an anti-Imperialist revolutionary whom we never get to know. The finale echoes Return of the Jedi’s three-way cross-cutting to the point of borderline incoherence. CGI reenactments of Peter Cushing and Princess Leia, as well as other cameos, are on-the-nose.
—> RECOMMENDED: Rogue One should emphasize to both The Force Awakens’ critics and supporters how streamlined and tightly edited the latter film was, but adds more than enough new Star Wars material to suffice. The Force is still with us.
? This level of CGI characterizations is unpresidented. Unpresidented, I say.