A film review by Craig J. Koban December 22, 2016

RANK:  #22



2016, PG-13, 133 mins.


Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso  /  Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso  /  Diego Luna as Captain Cassian Andor  /  Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook  /  Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe  /  Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus  /  Alan Tudyk as K-2SO  /  Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera  /  James Earl Jones as Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader (voice)  /  Ben Mendelsohn as Director Orson Krennic  /  Jonathan Aris as Senator Jebel  /  Genevieve O'Reilly as Mon Mothma  /  Warwick Davis as Bistan

Directed by Gareth Edwards  /  Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy


To quote its full title, ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY is the first of what will, no doubt, be a multitude of new standalone anthology films produced by Disney that are set within the larger universe created by George Lucas four decades ago.  However, this spin-off series is a separate cinematic entity apart from the larger Skywalker family saga that has spanned through Episodes I through VII.  

However, to label ROGUE ONE as a spin-off film is largely a misnomer, seeing as its storyline directly relates to and segues into the events of the original 1977 STAR WARS film A NEW HOPE.  In many ways, ROGUE ONE is indeed a prequel film more than a standalone effort.  

Perhaps calling it EPISODE 3.5 would be highly apt? 

Everyone that has seen A NEW HOPE knows that it chronicled how the Rebel Alliance scored a major victory over the Galactic Empire by destroying their moon sized space station with the help of one Force attuned moisture farmer and a smuggler with a guilty conscience.  The rebels were able to exploit a weak spot in the Death Star as a result of gaining access to its secret engineering plans.  ROGUE ONE serves as a piece of connective tissue, so to speak, that explores how a courageous and rag-tag group of off-the-grid rebels were able to secure said plans.  Now, it would be easy to say that ROGUE ONE, for obvious reasons, is anti-climatic (SPOILER ALERT - they get the plans), but it's the journey towards that end game that makes this film enthralling.  That, and unlike the most recent STAR WARS film THE FORCE AWAKENS, this one is telling an original story that's not lazily recycling nostalgia or whole story arcs from previous films in the franchise.  ROGUE ONE, despite its preordained outcome, feels refreshingly original, despite playing its own unique brand of fan servicing that's never too obtrusive.



The film opens with a flashback that introduces us to scientist turned farmer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, refreshingly playing against type here by inhabiting the role of a conflicted, but noble hero), whom previously had ties to the Empire in terms of working on research for the development for the Death Star.  He has long since abandoned his ties to them and has lived a life of seclusion with his family...that is until Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) makes his presence felt and demands that Galen return to his work and finish the dreaded space station.  Escaping the Empire's clutches is his daughter Jyn, who's ultimately raised in her father's work related absence by Saw Gerrera (a raspy and wheezy Forrest Whitaker), an extremist rebel that trains her to be a headstrong fighter. 

We then flashforward several years and the adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) is in an Imperial prison camp and is rescued and freed by the Rebel Alliance, whose leadership - including Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly) - has asked her for help on a top secret and highly dangerous mission: locate her father and find any information on the Death Star that could be used against it.  Teamed up with a motley crew of gallant heroes - featuring the likes of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0 (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a rogue Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a blind monk-like martial artist with an affinity to the Force, Chirrut Imwe (DonnieYen), and his warrior companion Baze (Wen Jiang) - Jyn travels to various planets in search of Galen, which unavoidably leads to the team going rogue and infiltrating an Imperial outpost to secure the most valuable piece of Intel in the galaxy.  Predictably, the Empire doesn't take this infiltration sitting down. 

ROGUE ONE is commendably and efficiently directed by Gareth Edwards, whom previously directed GODZILLA and the ultra small budget sci-fi film MONSTERS.  What's immediately apparent here is how much of a sensation of impressive scale and scope that he gives the film.  You gain an startling impression of the horrifyingly intimidating presence that the Empire has an occupying force throughout the galaxy (for the first time in a STAR WARS film, we actually get to see what the Empire...does).  Contrastingly, the film also finds an intriguing manner of dealing with the rebels themselves, which are not all presented as squeaky clean protagonists that are overwhelmingly good.  Some members - like Luna's Cassian - have a very wonky ethical compass and commit acts that are hardly noble or heroic.  Compared to the relative black and white portrait of good versus evil that has permeated the STAR WARS cinematic universe, ROGUE ONE finds a gripping new manner of approaching that struggle. 

ROGUE ONE is also a rich visual odyssey that shows great conceptual imagination and pays proper respect to the untapped imagination of Lucas' creation.  The planets of the film feel suitably alien, fantastical, and otherworldly, something that the somewhat sterile and overly familiar environments of THE FORCE AWAKENS (which disappointingly re-appropriated the ecologies of past STAR WARS planets) didn't have.  We visit a holy city that was once a holy land for the Jedi, a return to the volcanic planet of Mustafar to see the castle-like headquarters of one iconic STAR WARS villain, and a lush tropical beach planet whose picturesque panoramas are in stark contrast to the war that's unleashed on its shores in the climatic third act of the film.  More importantly, ROGUE ONE pitch perfectly matches the visual aesthetic of a "used future" approach that made the original STAR WARS films appear so instantly tactile and authentic.  Edwards is a consummate filmmaking craftsman from a technical perspective, and ROGUE ONE is arguably one of the finest looking films set in a galaxy far, far away that I've seen. 

The performances are thanklessly textured and nuanced here and compliment the film's awe inspiring visions.  Felicity Jones brings both a wounded vulnerability and a spirited tenacity as her rebel spy, and her partner in Luna is especially solid playing a conflicted Rebel with questionable methods.  Scoring much of the film's laughs is Tudyk as his hyper sarcastic droid that comes off as a personality morphing of a Han Solo and a C3PO.  The performance standout for me was Mendelsohn as Krennic, who miraculously manages to make his ambitious minded, but somewhat emasculated and disrespected politician a figure of surprising empathy.  Make no mistake, Krennic is an evil genocidal tyrant unafraid to commit mass murder on a planetary scale, to be sure, but the manner that he constantly feels like he's licking the boot heels of his superiors whose respect he clamors for makes him an atypically rendered baddie in his franchise.  He's bitter, resentful, dangerous...and somehow pitiful at the same time. 

Speaking of villains, Darth Vader (once again joyously voiced by with the familiar bass-heavy presence by the legendary James Earl Jones), does appear in ROGUE ONE, but not a lot...almost sparingly...which is ultimately a good thing.  This, unfortunately, leads to some of my complaints about the film in terms of the manner it resurrects other well established characters that populated the original trilogy.  Two in particular stick out like proverbial sore thumbs, mostly because (a) they're completely rendered as a CG visual effect and (b) both are (without spoiling their identities) human beings.  There's no question whatsoever that state of the art and pioneering work has been done here to replicate past STAR WARS characters (one of which occupies roughly a few seconds of screen time, whereas the other finds his way into multiple scenes).  The problem with this approach is that it's ultimately distracting: you're so subconsciously aware that you're witnessing an elaborately rendered visual effect that it becomes all that you're really focused on.  It's ironic, but Disney has publicly stated that they wished to go for a more practical visual effects approach for their future STAR WARS films, which leaves this creative decision here in ROGUE ONE coming off as disingenuously unnecessary.   

ROGUE ONE has other issues, like pacing.  The opening sections of the film spend an awful lot of time introducing us to all of the characters and their predicament (there's simply too many of them vying for attention in the film) and engages in sometimes yawn inducing exposition (Lucas was, if anything, a genius when it came to thrusting viewers into A NEW HOPE with a blunt, never-look-back immediacy that didn't waste time of explaining his universe).  A lot of ROGUE ONE hyperactively jumps around from planet to planet with such repetition that title cards are required (a series first) just to relay some sense to the audience as to where the characters are in the story.  Thankfully, once the film settles into its grove at the midway point and careens towards its surprisingly suspenseful finale - during which time Edwards unleashes epic space and ground battles between the rebels and the Empire that have typified the finest STAR WARS films of the past - you're almost willing to forgive such narrative indiscretions.  And there's a late scene during the finale that arguably might be the single greatest character moment in any STAR WARS film...ever.   

ROGUE ONE is an unusually dark and violent STAR WARS entry...but fittingly so.  It certainly emphasizes the war in the series' title.   The film does abscond away from some cherished and well established staples of STAR WARS films that may utterly frustrate some viewers (no open title crawl and John Williams' immortal score and themes are very much absent in Michael Giacchino's flatly half hearted score).  Yet, these are minor nitpicks in the large scheme of things, because ROGUE ONE manages to triumphantly succeed as not only our first exposure to what will be a larger new world of anthology films of endless possibilities, but also as a very worthy addition and preamble to Lucas' first space opera from decades past.  ROGUE ONE might lack the euphoric and nerdgasmic fun factor of THE FORCE AWAKENS, but it's a much more finely executed and rendered vision that's not slavishly miming material of the past as J.J. Abrams and company did.  In a way, ROGUE ONE is certainly an elaborate piece of fan servicing riddled with innumerable Easter Eggs, cameos, nods, and references to STAR WARS of old, but it's done with more ingenuity and tact.  It's both wondrously nostalgic and fearlessly innovative at the same time.  In a way, ROGUE ONE proves that - in making any new STAR WARS film - you can have your cake and eat it too. 

Maybe blue milk would have been a more fitting food analogy here.


ROGUE ONE - My CTV Preview


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