Editor’s note: I try not to spoil anything here that hasn’t been revealed in a trailer.
ROGUE ONE is the best STAR WARS movie since 1980, and the first made truly for adults. This is the prequel that fans have been awaiting for. Rather than answering questions nobody had (what was Darth Vader like as a child), it takes so many of the questions people have been dreaming about for nearly 40 years (how did the Rebels get those plans), and answers them in clever and satisfying ways. It does have a few flaws, but it also has such solid world-building and moments of greatness that the defects can be forgiven.
The filmmakers made some bold choices… there are no Jedi, there aren’t any cute droids, there’s no opening crawl, and there isn’t that soaring John Williams score to wrap us in like a cozy blanket. It isn’t a STAR WARS movie for everyone. But it is a STAR WARS movie for me.
When we heard extensive reshoots were taking place for ROGUE ONE, many were worried. Yes, it is true that all STAR WARS films plan in reshoots, but these were rumored to be more extensive. We heard it didn’t feel like STAR WARS enough. Some worried they wanted to tone down the violence and add in more humor. Judging from the fact that a great many of the shots from the trailer are not in the final film, it does seem that much tinkering was done late in the process. I don’t know exactly what was reshot, but I like the results. This feels like STAR WARS, and this feels like war. It has some of the best action scenes ever shot in the STAR WARS universe. And the climax — about the only thing to say is, “Wow!”
I’m surprised that effectively no context was given to start the movie. There’s no crawl — it just starts with a jarring shot. I like the idea of doing something new, and reserving the crawl for “saga” films — after all, how do you title it, “Episode 3.5?” Serious fans know this is set right before STAR WARS, but the casual fans are going to be wondering where Rey and Chewbacca are.
ROGUE ONE really starts about 16 or so years prior to the main events of the film — the Empire has come for scientist Galen Erso to conscript him into building the Death Star. His daughter Jyn escapes. Cut to years later — she’s in trouble with the law, but is busted out because the nascent rebel alliance needs her. Eventually a ragtag team of rebels is assembled to steal the plans to the Death Star — along with Jyn we have Captain Cassian Andor, surly droid K-2SO, escaped Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, blind force spiritualist Chirrut Imwe, and his friend and heavy weapons specialist Baze Malbus. They also encounter Saw Gurerra, a rebel whose positions are a bit extreme, even for a rebel. On the opposing side, Director Krennic is overseeing the construction of the Death Star, and looming large in the background is everyone’s favorite — Darth Vader.
Maybe my favorite thing about ROGUE ONE was the extent to which it answers questions from EPISODE IV, and seamlessness with which it leads into it. A big part of this is recreating the Yavin base, the Death Star, and some of our favorite characters who populate it. From the trailer, you already know we see Vader, Mon Mothma, and if you were looking closely, Governor Tarkin. There are a few more surprises, but I won’t spoil them here. A variety of movie tricks were used to bring back these faces from 40 years ago, some of whom are long dead. In some cases they cast lookalike actors. In others, it seems that they reused footage shot for EPISODE IV. But in the most notable cases, they have either full CG recreations of characters, or CG enhancements to existing actors. However they did Tarkin, the results are astounding. He’s a major character in the film. Touches like that absolutely sell the fact that this is taking place the very day that STAR WARS begins.
Another thing I like about ROGUE ONE is the extra depth it added to EPISODE IV. We see much more about the Rebel Alliance and how they come together — first as a squabbling band of people with very different backgrounds and interests, and only later more unified out of necessity. I could watch scenes on the exquisitely recreated Yavin IV base all day long. We get the sense that this is a real military force, with people who have to kill, take orders, and do some extreme things in the name of the greater good. You really get the sense that the odds are stacked against them.
By now we’re familiar with callbacks to the original trilogy in subsequently made films. Sometimes these work, but sometimes they undermine the original by taking an exemplary moment from the classic trilogy and cannibalizing it to borrow from its greatness. ROGUE ONE shares an extraordinary amount of DNA with Episode IV, but mostly avoids the cheap crowd-pleasing callbacks used so thoroughly in episodes I-III and VII. You don’t need those when you’re in the same settings, seeing the same vehicles, and dealing with some of the same characters.
There were so many opportunities to just insert a needle drop on John Williams brilliant 1977 score. But the filmmakers, to their credit, resisted. The score by Michael Giacchino has plenty of oh-so-similar, but drawn out, distorted, or incomplete references to Williams’ masterpieces. Still, it stands as a work of its own. It in no way approaches the greatness of Williams’ original score (a feat Williams himself has never been able to achieve). But the silver lining is that when shown back to back with Episode IV, A NEW HOPE will still shine as bright as ever. We won’t have just heard all the same music.
Everything referred to in STAR WARS holds up in ROGUE ONE, without having to see it “from a certain point of view.” The opening crawl of STAR WARS is as true as it ever was. Vader’s lines and behavior as he boards the Leia’s ship are exactly what you’d expect from someone who went through what he just did. The seemingly anachronistic aspect of loading a floppy disk into a droid, in this age of digital transmissions, is explained with refreshing clarity. Vader’s discussions with Tarkin, once just providing nebulous backstory, are now germane to a world we’ve experienced. There are many more connections, but I don’t want to spoil them here.
Having said the above, there are some relatively minor failures to evoke feelings from the original trilogy. There are some cameos by well known characters, which generally work when they need to (sometimes to great effect), though sometimes they seem tacked on or misfires. Vader is a mixed bag. As you can see from the trailer, in one scene he just looks… off. His helmet sticks way too far out from his suit. It also seems much grayer in the neck region. Maybe this is a trick of being lit largely from below, but it is still jarring. It also seems a little too shiny and perfectly sculpted in the face (more like the look of Vader in RETURN OF THE JEDI), while retaining the red lenses that we’ve seen in EPISODE IV.
John Knoll has said that they created a compromise between Vader’s various looks, and justified it by saying that Vader has many suits, a more lived-in version for battle, and a more pristine one for meetings with the Emperor. That’s fine, but then pick one — don’t mix them up. It needs to feel right at a gut level, and the first appearance of Vader just didn’t. Having said that, another appearance of Vader in this film more than makes up for it. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll just say it is my favorite Vader moment of every bit of STAR WARS ever filmed. That’s a pretty amazing achievement.
Another thing I love about ROGUE ONE is seeing things we’ve never seen before in the Star Wars universe, yet which feel completely at home there. The new ships, for example, look amazing. And the various kinds of stormtroopers are at once new, exciting, and familiar. The whole universe looks beat up when it comes to the parts that should be lived-in (most notably the rebels), and shiny and pristine where that is appropriate (e.g. the newly built Death Star).
At the end there’s a space battle that is my favorite in Star Wars history. Yes it is highly derivative of the one on RETURN OF THE JEDI, but the technology is so much better now that it is worth seeing some of the same ideas revisited with new twists. Remember how the Starkiller Base spaceship attack just seemed tacked on and perfunctory in EPISODE VII? Not so here. The ships look great, and you feel the tension and urgency like never before.
Sadly, I can’t say the same about the main plot going on below the space battle. It features dumb obstacles and obvious beats that we’ve seen a million times in action movies. At least it has some redeeming moments when interesting things happen to the characters while they’re going through the kinds of motions we’ve seen before.
The most serious flaw in ROGUE ONE is that there is too little time spent on character development. Even the main character, Jyn Erso, is scarcely deeper than the sketch we’ve seen from the trailers. The other rebels are even less well developed. Even a character like Saw Gerrera, who has a fascinating backstory and setup, and is played by such a giant as Forest Whitaker, is given short shrift. Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has a ton of screen time, yet is entirely one dimensional. It is a shame because when the fate of each character is revealed, we would like to feel more than we often do.
I was also disappointed to see that the new villain here, Director Krennic, is not as interesting as I’d hoped. He’s fine, but he doesn’t have a lot to do beyond bickering with Tarkin, whining to Vader, and having a mandatory and somewhat contrived showdown with certain characters. The best Star Wars villains are undoubtedly bad-ass — fierce, skilled, and respected. This guy must be a genius to be the driving force behind the Death Star, and yet has so many bad things happen to him that we kind of feel sorry for him.
Jedha — the spiritual center of the Jedi — is a fascinating concept. The place looks amazing, and some of the backstory alluded to sounds intriguing. More perhaps any other scene in Star Wars history, this was shot with techniques that made it feel like a real place. The only disappointment is that we didn’t see more. The Kyber Crystals are referred to only in a kind of offhand way. Jyn Erso is wearing one, which seems like a plot point that should come up later, but ultimately it seems like a loose end.
I’ll get into the science in a future article. There are certainly cheats, but they are understandable in a space fantasy, and it didn’t stop the movie cold for me like Starkiller Base did.
Maybe the film’s salvation and biggest weakness are that had a few too many cooks in the kitchen, and had to meet a release date and expectations set by a huge company. From a negative standpoint, there must have been a bigger story here, with more character development than we saw on screen. That stuff was pared back to a minimum. On the other hand, some bold choices were allowed to go ahead, though not so bold that the film doesn’t feel like Star Wars. And this is the perfect companion piece to EPISODE IV. I think a compromise was struck. That’s fine with me because ROGUE ONE builds out the Star Wars universe in new and exciting ways. And it has moments of greatness that just make me ecstatic. I left a Star Wars movie feeling not just satisfied, but amazed. What a feeling that is.
And for good measure, here's the Rogue One supercut that James Darling and I made: