solemnly murmurs, "Many Bothans died to bring us this information." There are no Bothans in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but there is quite a bit of death, and not just involving hundreds of haphazardly slaughtered stormtroopers. This counts as a surprise. The Star Wars franchise isn't devoid of darkness, but it has generally prioritized fun and escapism; while Rogue One largely stays on brand, it isn't especially concerned with joy. Instead, the predominant theme of this interesting and frustrating film—which was directed by Gareth Edwards from a script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy—is sacrifice. It's a genuine war movie, one about the soldiers who wade through the mud, risking their lives so that the rest of us may glimpse a better tomorrow.
If that sounds turgid, don't worry—this is still a Star Wars movie, with all of the excitement and mythology that such an undertaking entails. Yet Rogue One
occupies a curious place within Disney's newest and most profitable
cinematic universe. Whereas the official episodic saga resumed last
year, after a decade-long layoff, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One
is the first of the studio's "anthology" series, films that both take
place within the canonical realm and simultaneously stand apart from it.
(Continuing this pattern, 2018 will see the release of a Han Solo
movie, starring Hail, Caesar's
Alden Ehrenreich, while a rumored Boba Fett film is tentatively slated
for 2020.) In theory, this concept will allow filmmakers to expand the Star Wars
mythos into uncharted space, using the series' existing, minutely
detailed template to tell bold and innovative stories. But because the
franchise's fan base is so entrenched and protective of its collective
property—and because directors must satisfy their corporate overlord's
commercial imperative to please those fans—veering too far off course is
a dicey proposition.
In broad terms, Rogue One gets this balancing act mostly right.
To be sure, it provides a hefty helping of winking fan service: C-3PO
pops up to whimper something miserably; Mon Mothma makes an appearance,
as do those hotheads from Mos Eisley; Darth Vader casually waves his
hand and chokes a hapless underling half-to-death; somebody confesses
that he has a bad feeling about this. But these moments function more as
playful easter eggs than as the spine of the film's story, which is, by
and large, gratifyingly original. The Force Awakens was for the most part a rousing success, but in essentially mirroring the plot of Star Wars: A New Hope, it betrayed J.J. Abrams' anxiety—he made certain to stay on target at all costs, lest he inadvertently stumble into an asteroid field. Rogue One is hardly an isolated production—chronologically, it takes place shortly before the events of A New Hope—but its dovetails with extant material feel nimble, less the product of studio engineering than artistic ingenuity.
It also moves like quicksilver, critical for a movie with so much
exposition to burn through. Following a foreboding prologue that
features a dead mum, a kidnapped dad, and a mournful rescue, Rogue One launches into a flurry of activity. Jyn Erso
(Felicity Jones, tough as nails) is a solitary dissident who's serving
time for the Empire while also fighting the memories of her tragic past.
She's broken out of captivity by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, struggling
but eventually finding his form) and his droid, K-2SO (voiced by a funny
Alan Tudyk). They're part of the Rebel Alliance, and they're hoping
this impetuous woman will help them track down her father, Galen (Mads
Mikkelsen, doing what he can), who's reportedly helping the Empire
create a little planet-destroying space station called the Death Star.
To do so, they must first travel to the dusty planet Jedha and confer
with the extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, overdoing it). There,
they team up with a defected Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed, always good),
along with a pair of relatively cheerful mercenaries: Chirrut (Donnie
Yen, bringing some martial artistry to the FX-heavy combat) and Baze
(Jiang Wen, solid).
But the meat of Rogue One is not entirely predictable, even if
Edwards follows the franchise's familiar pattern, alternating between
robust sequences of brightly colored action and more prosaic stretches
of conniving and contemplation. His greatest coup is to invest the
proceedings with a portentous sense of doom, and he's buoyed
significantly by the particularity of the production design and the
lighting. A midnight assassination attempt in a rain-soaked outpost
thrums with danger and uncertainty, the lashing downpour adding tension
and texture. Conversely, the extended finale is a daytime assault in
dazzling sunlight, and it carries a sting of metaphor; where The Force Awakens shrilly analogized the Empire to the Third Reich via obvious symbols, Rogue One conjures the comparison more persuasively through the simple storming of a beach.
Oddly, while the movie's environments look terrific, its action scenes
are more adequate than inspiring. Edwards' prior film, which presumably
earned him this gig, was his visually impressive, narratively empty
reboot of Godzilla; Rogue One
suggests that, when it comes to mayhem, he may be better suited to
lumbering monsters than fleet spaceships. All of the warfare is
reasonably well-executed—the magnificent AT-AT walkers from The Empire Strikes Back
make their return, and the various vessels zoom and dart through space
with sufficient clarity—but there are few eye-popping sequences. The
exception is a gloriously lo-fi moment when a small spacecraft (called a
Corvette, naturally) assumes the role of battering ram, causing a giant
Star Destroyer to crash into one of its brethren, tearing through it
like a sticky butter knife.
The jam-packed approach does, however, create a major challenge for the
actors, most of whom perform capably but struggle to craft truly
memorable characters. The outlier, as is often the case, is Jones. As
she has consistently demonstrated—particularly in Like Crazy, The Invisible Woman, and The Theory of Everything—the
actress has a gift for transforming archetypes into well-rounded
individuals, and here she gives Jyn a steely toughness that results in a
twinge of vulnerability. (Other than Jyn, the film's most charismatic
presence, strangely enough, is Tudyk, whose dismissive CGI droid
functions as a delightful inversion of the fretful C-3PO.)
And that feeling—that sense of quiet wonder and lingering admiration—is what makes this whole damn enterprise worthwhile. Rogue One is not a great movie; though well-made and
enjoyable, it cannot entirely slough off the rigid formula imposed upon
it as a precondition for operating within the Star Wars
franchise. But it does hint at the possibility that someday, a different
standalone entry might realize the potential of the anthology format,
and will use this vibrant universe as scaffolding for its own thrilling
chapter. Call me crazy, but I have a good feeling about this.