When Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released in December 2015, to say that it had to live up to high expectations would be a tremendous understatement. A decade had passed since the last live-action Star Wars movie was released, and the trailers had promoted the film as an exciting new take on the galaxy far, far away while also promising plenty of nostalgic moments, evidenced by the inclusion of John William’s iconic soundtrack and appearances from Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2. Although The Force Awakens was by no means a bad film, time and nostalgia made audiences and critics willing to forgive its more egregious flaws: mainly that it was a recapitulation of the Star Wars: A New Hope’s storyline albeit with superior special effects.
However, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story does not benefit from the same circumstances that surrounded The Force Awakens. The familiar glow of a lightsaber or an incredulous rendition of “I’ve got bad feeling about this” are not enough to satisfy fans anymore. Thus, I looked to Rogue One with the hope and expectancy that it would delve deeper into the rich lore and mythology of the Star Wars universe, despite the fact that it is a prequel (a term that fills die-hard fans of the original trilogy with anger and disgust). After three viewings, I can say that it not only satisfies, it thrills!
Rogue One takes place after the events of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith but before the events of Star Wars A New Hope. The Galactic Empire has solidified their rule over the galaxy. Once the Rebel Alliance finds out that the Empire has created the Death Star, a super weapon capable of destroying an entire planet, a band of rebels led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) attempt to steal the plans of the Death Star in order to destroy it. However, although Jyn and Cassian are the main protagonists of the story and are on the side of the Rebellion, director Gareth Edwards (helped by writer Tony Gilroy who oversaw the reshoots) expertly portrays members of the Rebel Alliance as a diverse, ideologically divided, but committed set of factions still budding into maturity; it is a far cry from the more polished, heroic and virtuous incarnation of the organization found in the original trilogy. Cassian Andor is tough and tenacious soldier who follows orders to the letter, even if it clashes with his morals. His commitment to the Rebellion stands in stark contrast to Jyn Erso, an insurgent who only cares about her own well-being. Though Jyn is reluctant to join the Rebellion by the film’s end she rousingly inspires the Alliance to take up arms and war against the Imperial base on Scarif despite the odds against success.
Indeed, while previous Star Wars films were more adventurous and light-hearted in tone, Rogue One is grim and bleak in contrast. In the film’s finale, explosions litter the beach shores of Scarif, and as rebels disembark from U-Wings to destroy towering AT-ACTs, the whole scene feels very much like a sci-fi rendition of Saving Private Ryan’s bloody opening battle scene on Omaha beach. Gone are the ostentatious displays of Force or the slashing of a lightsaber. This is war in all its glory and infamy. You feel for the rebels who are gunned down with brutal efficiency by advanced Death Troopers and ache for brave X-Wing fighters who shot down with surgical precision by the imperial fleet’s squadrons of TIE fighters. The lack of lightsabers or fantastical force elements makes the film seem much more realistic; the stakes feel much more real, and none of the characters are untouchable. While Jedi could deflect laser shots and blaster fire, the crew of Rogue One cannot.
Rogue One also boasts a diverse cast of characters. Alan Tudyk portrays K-2SO, a reprogrammed imperial droid whose sardonic personality and penchant for rattling off probability statistics provide much-needed comic relief. Donnie Yen’s portrayal of Chirrut Îmwe, a true believer in the Force and a spiritual warrior, provides one of the films best action sequences. I was worried that Ben Mendelsohn’s portrayal of Director Orson Krennic, the film’s main antagonist and lead weapons developer of the Empire, would veer into a hackneyed and clichéd portrayal of past imperial officers (such as Grand Moff Tarkin) but Mendelsohn masterfully depicts Krennic as ambitious yet caustic at the same time. He is eager to please the Emperor, yet will tolerate no disrespect or challenge against his ego or efforts. Though outspoken, he is nonetheless cool and calculating as well.
From the stormy and dark planet of Eadu to the rugged urban environment of Jedha, the film’s cinematography was gorgeous. The movie’s 30 minute finale takes place on the tropical planet Scarif, and is worth the price of admission alone. The shots oscillate from the space battle taking place above the planet’s surface as Alliance aircraft attack Star Destroyers and the ground battle as Jyn, Cassian and the other rebels attempt to transport the plans to the Rebel fleet.
Arguably the one appearance that everyone was most excited for (and most worried that it would be executed poorly) was the reappearance of Darth Vader. The Lord of the Sith is used sparingly yet effectively, and his interaction with Director Krennic is done perfectly, as James Earl Jones is able to channel the same sarcasm, malice and charisma of Vader’s past appearances even if for only a few minutes. He steals the show in every scene and demonstrates why he is the most feared Sith in the galaxy during the film’s final moments.
If I could fault Rogue One for anything, it would be how the film sometimes struggles to balance and juggle its multiple characters and arcs. For example, Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus and Riz Ahmed’s character Bodhi Rook, while given plenty of scenes, nonetheless feel shoe-horned; the former seems included only to provide explosive action sequences and the latter to serve as a technician amongst the warriors of the Rebel Alliance. Mads Mikkelson is placed in a role that does not quite make use of his broad array of talent, while Forest Whitaker’s standout portrayal of the zany and eccentric Saw Gerrera is sadly underused.
Yet despite minor issues with pacing and lack of development for some characters, Rogue One defies all expectations. It is a breath-taking and captivating film that stands on its own merits, while also seamlessly blending into the tapestry and canon of the Star Wars universe, despite its darker and more mature tone.
Zachary Lee is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.