This is the first of the Star Wars Universe films that I did not see on opening day. It’s not that I did not want to, but someone in the house had other commitments and the likelihood was that if I went without them, we would have had our own war on our hands. So in addition to avoiding spoilers for months, I had to avoid reviews, tweets, and tidbits of knowledge for an extra few days in order to make this experience more complete. I’m sure many of you have done the same kinds of things and believe me, I will stick to my no-spoiler policy for these comments, but I can say that this is probably my favorite of the Star Wars movies since the original trilogy was completed in 1983. “Rogue One” feels like an integral part of the story, without having to rely on the characters we have from the other films. There is a small amount of bleed over, but for the most part this is a newly original part of the galactic battles taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Unlike last years “The Force Awakens“, this film occurs prior to the original “Star Wars“. It is not a repeat of the plot points from that film like Episode VII, it is however a supplement to the story that ends up deepening the events of the original trilogy and setting up a number of story threads that we have already seen completed in other films. One thing that is definitely true about this new film is that it may be the darkest of all of the movies with the possible exception of “Revenge of the Sith” which after all did include the murder of children as a plot point. At the conclusion of the film, there will be a realization about how dark this movie really is, that is only leavened by a call back piece of fan service that I think is totally justified.
The first third of the story introduces so many new characters, that it is a whirlwind to observe. Frankly, there were so many names and they were so hard to remember and distinguish from one another, that ultimately I just stopped trying. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is our heroine, and whoever she is encountering at any given moment was the only character that mattered. Character development here may not be as important as in the continuing story, since this is a stand alone film, but it means that some of the events that take place in the film will not have the emotional impact that they would in the longer running series. Believe me however, there are plenty of strong emotional elements, and if a character was not fully explored for this story, it is usually so that the plot and action could be kept moving. There are some characters however that manage to make a mark without much more than a unique look or ambiguous reference to the past. I suspect a fan favorite will be K-2SO, an Imperial Droid reconditioned to work for the rebel alliance. There is a great deal of humor in the lines and situations where that character is included, and the voice work of Alan Tudyk is just right for the part.
Diego Luna as Cassian Andor is supposed to be a conflicted character, and his relationship with Jyn is an uncertain one. There are several moments of the film that are ominous because we don’t really know how his character is going to play things out. Jones is tough and unpredictable, while Luna is shady and enigmatic. In fact, there are elements to their two characters that I suppose are designed to represent the edge between the good and the dark sides of “the force”. About halfway through we get an answer, but it does not keep the two lead characters from having a continuing substrata of tension and distrust. It may also be the actor’s accent that made it difficult at times for me to pick out which character who was not present in a scene was being referred to. My ear for articulate pronunciation was hampered by my unfamiliarity with the sounds of his speech patterns. Another character that I quite enjoyed was Bodhi, the pilot, played by Riz Ahmed. While the characters exist more than thirty years apart, he seems to be the foreshadowing embodiment of the kinds of doubts that produce the new hero in Episode VII, Finn.
There are a half dozen or so characters who have appeared in another Star Wars film and show up briefly in this one. It is no surprise that Darth Vader is in the movie, his character was teased in the trailer. Some of the other recurring characters have only the briefest of moments in the film and are really just there for fan service, although that was totally welcome by me. Two or three of those characters however are a major component of the plot and one of them is the saving grace of what might otherwise be a very downbeat outcome for the film. One member of our group was a little resentful of this character being in the film at all, suggesting that a shadow or silhouette might have sufficed. I would strongly disagree. I think the choice made was exactly right and provides the emotional kick that the movie needs to make it fit in with the rest of the films. It will probably be a discussion point on a great many podcasts but I will not step into spoilers here, as tempted as I am to defend this choice.
Another thing that makes this movie feel like a tangential story to the original trilogy is the effort to make practical sets and effects a part of the film making. There is plenty of CGI to go around, but many of the environments are clearly real set locations and not computer based backgrounds. There were more animatronic puppets and costumes in the film than in any of the prequel films and even more than “The Force Awakens”. Director Gareth Edwards, who’s only previous work I’d seen was “Godzilla”, does a good job of making sense of the story given some of the convoluted plot elements and ambiguous characters a script cobbled together by four writers provided. In the long run, a lot of the movie works because Edwards keeps the story moving fast enough that we don’t have time to ask questions about motivations and history. The main characters are introduced with some efficiency, although I think we could do with a bit more back story on Jyn before she is unceremoniously “rescued”.
Lets say that in the end there were plenty of space battles, heroic sacrifices and light saber lore to keep the audience happy. The surprises in the film are well earned and even the nods to the other stories that are included are not obnoxious, they are just enough to keep the legions of Star Wars fans engaged. “Rogue One ” has at least three great emotional beats that will make your throat choke up a bit. It also has a climax that next to “The Empire Strikes Back” is emotionally satisfying without being particularly happy. The Galaxy is a pretty big place and there is room for a multitude of stories about the ride and fall of the empire. Just as happens in movies about WWII, there are some stories that cross paths, but there are others that take place simultaneously which can be just as compelling as a single thread of history. “Rogue One” may be a stand alone story, but it is also an outstanding story that fills in Galactic Rebellion history, without detracting from the main event. As a fan, I’m happy to say “More please”.