Rogue One: A Star Wars Retrospective

This review contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The movie came out in December of 2016. Go watch it already.

I’ve always been a reasonably big Star Wars fan. As a kid, I loved the original trilogy, and I was young enough to enjoy the cool parts of the prequels (Lightsaber fights! Space battles! Podracing!) while ignoring the not-so-cool parts (Bad CGI! Jar-Jar! Speeches about sand!). So, when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced a new trilogy, I was extremely excited. I still remember the excitement of seeing The Force Awakens on opening night: the crowded lobby, the electric feeling within the theater, the cheers as the iconic opening crawl appeared onscreen. And while that movie was an enjoyable, well-made kickoff to the trilogy, the movies that followed it did not live up to the hype. The Last Jedi, while beautifully shot and containing some interesting ideas, was a mess, seemingly set on dismantling all the plot threads from Awakens. Combine this with pacing issues and some truly bizarre moments (e.g. flying Leia) and you have a big disappointment. The Rise of Skywalker commits many of the same mistakes as its predecessor, with bad pacing, awkward scenes, and a general commitment to completely nullifying the previous movie. It is abundantly clear that Disney did not have a unified plan for these movies, and the trilogy suffers greatly for it, which led to a disappointing ending to the 40-year Skywalker Saga.

To get rid of the bad taste left by the sequel trilogy, I turned to other Star Wars media. I rewatched the original movies, started watching the Clone Wars TV show, and began playing Battlefront II. And, in my quest for Star Wars content made with some actual thought, I rediscovered another, perhaps more forgotten, Disney Star Wars film: Rogue One, directed by Godzilla‘s Gareth Edwards. Now, I had seen the film when it first came out in theaters, and remembered not especially liking it (perhaps partially due to the fact that my seat was in the very front-right corner of the theater). However, given its generally good reviews and my nostalgia for the pre-Last Jedi days, I decided to give it another shot. And, let me say, I was impressed. While I kind of understand why I might not have liked it back in 2016 (something I will delve into later), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in my opinion, is a top-two Star Wars movie of the 21st century.

First off: a brief plot synopsis. Rogue One is set immediately before A New Hope, focusing on the Rebel plot to steal the Death Star plans. When she is a child, our protagonist, Jyn Erso’s, father, Galen, is taken by the Empire to work on the top-secret Death Star. While designing the space station, he creates a flaw so small that it would slip by his Imperial overlords. Fifteen years later, knowing that the station will soon be operable, Galen sends word of the flaw to the Rebellion via a turncoat Imperial cargo pilot. Looking for a way to reach Galen and the Death Star plans, the Rebels enlist Jyn, now a petty criminal, to help. Jyn, along with a scrappy group of anti-imperials led by Rebel spy Cassian Andor, travel across the galaxy, skirmishing with Stormtroopers and facing ethical dilemmas along the way. The film culminates in a massive battle on the planet Scarif, where the plans lie in an Imperial data bank. Jyn and Cassian are able to transmit the plans to the Rebel Fleet, but not before the Death Star takes aim at the planet. In a single blast, the data bank, along with everyone near it, is wiped out. But, with the plans in their hands, the Rebels find themselves with someone they didn’t have before: hope.

Now, onto my (rather brief) criticisms of the film. On my first watch, I had a big issue with the characters. I felt that none of them were very well-developed, and I had a hard time staying invested in them. While I appreciated the characters a little more on my second watch, this criticism still stands. There are a lot of characters in the film, and the screenwriting doesn’t really flesh most of them out in meaningful ways. However, a weak script can occasionally be overcome by strong acting. And while Ben Mendelsohn gives a great, charmingly hammy performance as Orson Krennic, the Imperial “big bad” of the film, and Donnie Yen is pretty cool as Chirrut Îmwe, an expert martial artist with mysterious Force abilities, most of the actors aren’t able to elevate their decidedly “meh” material. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, playing Jyn and Cassian, give rather bland performances (not super surprising, given their especially boring lines), and Alan Tudyk (playing a reprogrammed Imperial droid working for the Rebellion), while certainly funny, feels too much like comic relief for comic relief’s sake. Another flaw in the film is its half-baked attempt to delve into the ethics of war. There are a few scenes where Cassian does some morally dubious action for the sake of the Rebellion, but they always feel kind of shoehorned in and awkward. It’s clear that the film is trying to convey the “both sides do bad things in war” message, but it never really commits to the idea.

While my criticisms may make Rogue One sound like a rather boring film, I can assure you it’s nothing of the sort. While the script could be stronger, the overall plot structure of the film is very good. I was engaged the for the whole film, eager to see what would happen next (something I can’t say happened on my original viewing). The pacing is great, sweeping the viewer from set piece to set piece in brisk, entertaining fashion.  And it is in these set pieces where the film truly shines. Rogue One has, hands down, the most well-directed action scenes of the Star Wars franchise. From a tense, Hurt Locker-style urban firefight between Rebels and Stormtroopers to a nighttime Rebel bombing run of an Imperial laboratory, each action scene is impeccably shot and edited for maximum impact. The final battle on Scarif perfectly intertwines epic space combat with gritty, boots-on-the-ground land fighting. However, my favorite scene in the film comes at the end, featuring arguably the most fear-inducing portrayal of Darth Vader (yes, he’s in this too!) in the entire franchise. If for nothing else, you MUST see the film for this scene. It is in the action where this movie shines, partially thanks to the fantastic technical work. Rogue One is absolutely gorgeous, with fantastic cinematography and special effects. The sound design and mixing is great, and the score, composed by Michael Giacchino, calls to mind the excellence of John Williams while still maintaining some originality. The combination of epic spectacle and tight direction is more than enough, in my opinion, to compensate for the film’s narrative shortcomings.

Even with its all its technical accomplishments, the most impressive part of Rogue One for me is the film’s production design. The film perfectly evokes the retro-futuristic style of the original movies while still having a flair all its own. From the familiar starship designs to the tacky ’70s haircuts, the influence of the originals is undeniable. However, save for a couple rather forced tongue-in-cheek references, the film doesn’t overplay its hand in drawing from its classic source material. There is plenty of “new” in Rogue One, from the intimidating Death Troopers to the stunning, Polynesia-influenced shores of Scarif. This fresh artistic design allows the film to carve its own identity instead of standing in the shadow of the original trilogy. While Rogue One could have just banked off its history and been mere nostalgia-bait, it instead elevates itself with its originality.

While not a masterpiece in storytelling, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is an incredibly well-made film with some of the most entertaining action in the Star Wars universe. It kept me on the edge of my seat throughout its runtime, and it beautifully mixes iconic imagery with top-shelf visual effects. If you’re looking for a emotional, character driven film, this movie may not be for you. However, if you set reasonable expectations, Rogue One is an exhilarating ride and one of the better entries in the Star Wars canon. Especially in light of the Sequel Trilogy, I recommend this film to any fan of the franchise.

Sam’s Completely Arbitrary Rating: 8/10