Sam Reynolds ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Rogue One wants to be different. It immediately separates itself from any Star Wars film before it by forgoing the opening crawl that has become a staple for the franchise. After opening with the classic title card we all know, it abruptly jumps to open space, the frame filled with a disorienting mirror-like image that we assume, given the franchise’s history with opening shots, is some sort of evil Star Destroyer. It turns out to simply be the rings of a planet. Within a first minute of fake outs, the film’s message is clear: this is a Star Wars movie, but on its own terms.
Designated as the first Star Wars spin-off film to explore events outside of the main saga, Rogue One takes place in between the Original and Prequel trilogies, after the Galactic Empire takes control of the Galaxy in Revenge of the Sith and before Luke Skywalker comes across C-3PO and R2-D2 in A New Hope. The plot explores the crucial backstory of the original Star Wars film, revolving around a ragtag group of rebels who band together to steal the plans for the Empire’s ultimate weapon, The Death Star. This specific event has always been a fascinating part of the original lore that has been referred to in the franchise’s other films, but never fleshed out on the silver screen.
Thus, Rogue One must pull off an incredible balancing act in order to fully satisfy the expected rhythm of the universe. It must look and feel authentic to the original trilogy, while also nod to key events of the much loathed prequel trilogy enough to satisfy continuity. It must all-at-once act as a bridge between two tonally separate franchises within the same universe, be a believable set up to the events of A New Hope, and a compelling story in its own right. Though it can afford to take many liberties as the series’ first stand a lone film, Rogue One faces just as many constrictions as it does freedoms, because we already know how this story ends and how it fits into the larger picture.
The result is a film that desperately wants to tell its own story, and excels when it does, but falters under the weight being tied to the rest of the Star Wars movies, feeling completely fresh and original at its best, while awkward and forced at its worst.
One undeniable quality of the film is passion, as everyone behind Rogue One’s creative team clearly cares so much about faithfully capturing the Star Wars universe. The cinematography is arguably the finest to ever grace a Star Wars picture, from sweeping camera movements over beautifully colored ocean shores to intimate close ups of both humans and droids alike. The locations and sets are beautifully captured and created, revealing new environments never before explored in the Star Wars universe, such as dark city alleys and tropical beaches.
The visual effects are nothing short of breathtaking, especially when capturing the spectacle of large space battles and planets. Just try to contain yourself as the full scale of the Death Star gorgeously emerges from the shadows, engulfing the entire frame. The creatures brought to life in this film are downright inspired, as the attention to detail in even the most mundane character is felt in every frame. This both looks and feels like a Star Wars movie should in 2016, and the results are consistently beautiful and fulfilling, expanding the universe in unique ways and improving upon the familiar.
There are also many new characters to introduce in Rogue One, and almost all of them are an absolute delight to watch onscreen. There is main protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones – who’s demanding screen presence grounds the entire film), a conflicted and fierce outlaw with a personal connection to the Empire, Captain Cassian Andor (a reserved Diego Luna), a headstrong rebel with legitimate moral grey area the saga could use more of, and a 7-foot droid named K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who’s witty dry humor results in stealing every scene he’s in.
Every character brings a unique quality to the group dynamic, and is memorable enough to create an immediate impression, even if some aren’t given enough time to be fully fleshed out. These characters perfectly fit the new themes and tone, which are incredibly original and breathe new life into the franchise. This is a fast-paced war movie that is as quick in action as it in humor. Donnie Yen, playing a blind force devotee, is responsible for the most incredibly choreographed fight sequence in a Star Wars movie possibly ever, seamlessly mixing humor with intensity.
The films third act battle feels like a war movie disguised as a Star Wars film, and honestly is what those disappointed with Return of the Jedi have wanted from The Battle of Endor all this time. The film creates more layers to the Rebel Alliance than ever before, highlighting the messiness and fear of desperate people facing insurmountable odds against an Empire. The highs of when Rogue One is left to its own devices are nothing short of spectacular.
However, Rogue One has its share of faults, some that come with the territory of being the first film of its kind in a beloved franchise, while others that were completely avoidable and confusing.
The pressure of being the first standalone Star Wars film can be felt, and it is not hard to tell that Rogue One is testing the waters for new ways to structurally tell its story. Beyond being the first of the series that does not rely on an opening crawl for exposition, it also is the first to use location cards to inform the audience of what planet they are currently visiting. These decisions simultaneously feel like bold steps forward to assert the independence of the spin-off films, yet also a betrayal to the fundamentals of what makes a Star Wars movie a Star Wars movie. There is an awkward sense that time is still needed for a spin-off film to fit snuggly among the rest of the saga.
There are also a handful of misguided performances that unfortunately bog down the picture. Forest Whitaker, who doesn’t need to do anything more to prove his incredible acting abilities, surprisingly hams it up big time as Saw Gerrera, a rebel extremist who is one of the first instances of the Rebellion using questionable methods in the name of their cause. Whitaker wheezes in a shrill, dramatic voice that is meant to portray a tragic, senile man who emulates raw power yet is on the verge of breaking. Though the intention is clearly there, Whitaker overacts the roll to near ridiculous results. Elsewhere, James Earl Jones, reprising the role of the infamous Darth Vader, also sounds a bit off in his voice acting, enunciating in strange areas of words that make him sound like a Vader impersonator instead of the real thing. Ironically, the two most seemingly secure performers of the films turned out to becoming some of its most glaring missteps.
Worst of all, there are a few baffling instances of unnatural CGI that will likely haunt this film forever, since they feel completely unnecessary and could have been avoided entirely if handled with more care. The film clearly works best when it forgets its supposed to fulfill certain episodic duties and allows the story to unfold naturally, but flounders when trying to fit in reference after reference to past movies. This is a story that is strong enough to function completely on its own, yet is suffocated by constantly calling back to the original trilogy, especially in its forced final minutes.
The main thing holding down any Star Wars movie post-original-trilogy is the original trilogy itself, and there is no reason the franchise should feel unconfident in exploring uncharted territory when it has an abundance of incredibly fascinating material to work with.
Hope is a common word used in Rogue One, meant to a represent a key theme to drive the characters forward, while also doubling as a cheap buzzword meant to excite fans by referring to the story’s (much) older brother, A New Hope. It is a double edged sword that exemplifies all the reasons Rogue One works and fails. But if anything, Rogue One represents the countless possibilities for the Star Wars universe if creatives are given the chance to truly explore and create compelling new chapters, whether they be spin-offs or part of the main saga, without constantly using the original trilogy as a safety line. Rogue One confidently carves out new, exciting territory that only hints at the endless cinematic possibilities and caverns that can be explored in the Star Wars universe, but is haunted by the memories of the films that laid the foundation for the ground it inhabits. But still, there is so much ambition and care in Rogue One that it would be a crime for future films not to follow its lead. Let’s hope for that.
Overall Grade: B
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