Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso), Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), Alan Tudyk (K-2SO), Donnie Yen (Chirrut Imwe), Wen Jiang (Baze Malbus), Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook), Ben Mendelsohn (Orson Krennic), Forest Whitaker (Saw Gerrera), Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso), Paul Kasey (Admiral Raddus), Alistair Petrie (General Draven), Genevieve O'Reilly (Mon Mothma), Guy Henry (Governor Tarkin),
"Jyn, my Stardust, I can't imagine what you think of me. When I was taken, I faced some bitter truths. I was told that soon enough Krennic would have you as well. As time went by I knew that you were either dead or so well hidden that he would never find you. I knew if I had refused to work, if I took my own life, it would only be a matter of time before Krennic realized he no longer needed me to complete the project. So I did the one thing nobody expected. I lied. I learned to lie. I played the part of a beaten man resigned to the sanctuary of his work. I made myself indespensible and all the while, I laid the groundwork of my revenge. We call it the Death Star. There is no better name and the day is coming soon when it will be unleashed. I've placed a weakness deep within the system, a flaw so small and powerful, they will never find it." [...] "The reactor module, that's the key. That's the place I've laid my trap. It's well hidden and unstable. One blast to any part of it will destroy the entire station. You'll need the plans, the structural plans for the Death Star, to find the reactor. I know there's a complete engineering archive in the data vault at the citadel tower on Scarif. Any pressurized explosion to the reactor module will set off a chain reaction that will destroy the entire station." - Galen Erso, message to his daughter Jyn.
The Star Wars canon is an amorphous complicated thing, perhaps more intricate and fiercely battled over than that of its rival property, Star Trek. Between the junior novels, the comic books, the video games, and the much maligned/beloved expanded universe novels it's really hard to tell what if anything actually happened outside of the original six movies. While all these forms of media explored what happened after the events of the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, many more decided to flesh out the events prior to this. While stories like Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic series explored a deep and interesting subject matter others chose to focus on less important stories like the testicle-faced monkeyman from the Mos Eisley Cantina, the green pig-man who was eaten by the Rancor in Jabba's palace, or that one time that Han and Chewie had to battle zombie storm troopers on a derelict Star Destroyer.
Most of the expanded universe was thrown out with the release of J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But Disney had a shiny new IP with a built-in fanbase so they decided to create their own expanded universe stories as one-shot spinoff films released between entries in the new trilogy. The first of those films was Rogue One, a men-on-a-mission type film set just prior to the events of A New Hope, dealing with the stealing of the plans to the original Death Star that Luke used to save the day in that film's climax.
With the upcoming release of the troubled Solo: A Star Wars Story, and since I refuse to review any of the current episodic entries in the franchise until the trilogy has wrapped up, I thought we'd take a peek back at Solo's forebear.
Right out of the gate, Rogue One establishes itself as something very different from the other films in the series. From A New Hope to The Phantom Menace all the way to The Force Awakens there has always been a certain sterility and shininess to the Star Wars films. But where the numbered entries focused on one family embroiled in a decades-long war against one-another, Rogue One is about all the little people on the ground dealing with the logistics of getting Luke Skywalker in that trench to blow up the Death Star. As such, the movie trades in the pulp paperback cover science fantasy glitz of previous films for a grimy dust-covered aesthetic. There's a disheveled quality to the people in this movie that was only rarely shown in the previous films.
Of course this visual change is emblematic of the thematic difference between this movie and its predecessors. Rogue One is a "men on a mission" movie, specifically it's modeled on The Dirty Dozen. Anyone who has ever seen one of these movies knows that few if any of the main characters come back alive and collateral damage is the name of the game. This isn't a space opera, it's a war movie and it's not about the Skywalkers (though two of them do make appearances in the movie), it's about the poor bastards used as canon fodder in the Skywalker saga.
Of course for a men on a mission you need a team. Leading up the squadron is Jyn Erso, the daughter of an Imperial Engineer who was responsible for the building of the original Death Star. Jyn is a damaged person, abandoned as a child when her father was taken away by the Empire and then abandoned by her adoptive father when the rebels who served him were getting too close to figuring out her parentage. The universe has used Jyn and left her whenever it was done with her and she has grown up damaged and jaded, not interested in helping the Empire or the Rebellion when she's captured by the rebels and sent on a mission to get information due to her prior relationship with revolutionary rebel splinter-group leader Saw Gerrera.
Second up is Cassian, a rebel soldier who has had to do his share of unsavory tasks to protect himself and the rebellion. The sum of Cassian's sins have begun to weigh on his soul and he wants an opportunity to make it right with his conscience and save the galaxy from the Empire.
Cassian's sidekick is a reprogrammed Imperial strategy droid (a model of droid not seen or mentioned in previous media associated with the franchise, but he looks cool so I'm gonna let it slide) who appears to be suffering from an overactive sass module. Basically picture all C-3PO's whining but replace his mincing tone with a more trenchant sass and you have K-2SO. He's easily the highlight of the film thanks to Alan Tudyk, finally playing a robot in a film that deserves his talents. K-2 certainly raises even more questions about droids in the galaxy far away (they can be reprogrammed yet still have distinct personalities and emotions, making it apparent that the droids are a slave caste that seems to be weirdly okay with their station.)
Rounding things out are Chirrut Imwe (a blind force-positive monk played by Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (a heavy-weapon toting temple guardian played by Wen Jiang), and Bodhi Rook (a defected Imperial cargo pilot played by Riz Ahmed.) It would be a spoiler to go into how they come together or when and how they decide to go after the Death Star plans but these are our men of the mission.
Rogue One is the first film in this series with the word "War" prominently featured in the title to actually feel like a war movie. Storm Troopers have become the butt of every joke about their terrible aim but they're crack shots here and that fact causes a lot of pain. Of course the dark side of the Rebel Alliance is brought to the foreground too, not being above capturing a criminal clearly dealing with the trauma that has been her life and forcing her to go talk to a crazy warlord she hasn't seen in over a decade.
Ultimately our little squad is just a group of damaged people (and a droid) trying to do right by the universe in spite of the benign bickering of the Rebel Alliance and the outward menace posed by the Galactic Empire. Jyn's character arc isn't about her falling in love with the rebels, it's about her realizing that the Empire needs stopping and that the Rebels are the only opponent powerful enough to do it.
It's a mature and powerful message that I never imagined would ever be tackled in a Star Wars movie. Considering that Disney meddled so much with the movie in the late stages it's a wonder something so wonderfully complex was allowed to remain. SPOILERS FOLLOW UNTIL AFTER THE NEXT PICTURE. Most powerfully the movie decides to spare no-one, even many of the side characters we're introduced to go out in explosions or blaster fire. Most of the deaths are incredibly violent, albeit bloodless. The image of Jyn and Cassian embracing on the beach as they're consumed by the explosion from the Death Star's beam is a powerful image and something I never would have imagined I would see in a Star Wars movie. The movie was extrensively reshot and tinkered with by the studio but that last bit is Gareth Edwards to a tee.
Now, while I love most things about Rogue One, I am not without my complaints. First of all the character of Saw Gerrera is waaay out there. I know he's in the Rebels cartoon but he's such a bizarre character, with all his Immortan Joe-esque accessories and the out-there-even-for-Forest-Whittaker performance. He's built up as this mythic figure but ultimately does very little in the movie and then exits unceremoniously. Maybe this was a part of the original plan but it really would have been far more satisfying if he had been part of the climactic battle on Scarif at the end.
I know that a lot of people were really bugged by the CG Peter Cushing used to portray Grand Moff Tarkin. In its defense, the CG is actually really good and mostly only portrays its uncanny valley-esque qualities when the character is moving a lot. Still it would probably have been advisable to not show him as close-up or in as such good lighting as they ultimately choose to. The illusion would have worked better if he appeared via hologram. That said, the de-aged Princess Leia actually looks really good, though this character is asked to do far less than Tarkin.
I've heard complaints about the nods to other entries in the franchise, from the appearance of the aforementioned testicle-faced ape-man, a shoehorned in cameo from C-3PO and R2-D2, and the CG Leia and Tarkin. But it's really Vader's contributions to the film that hurt it. As cool as it is to see Ben Mendelsohn act out being force choked (Mendelsohn's oily middle-management villain is a great low-stakes enemy) or Vader tearing through some rebel troops, his scenes are mostly filler and in the case of the second scene actually takes away from the poignant ending of the film to take on a little five-minute long epilogue where we see that this movie ends maybe only a few hours before A New Hope begins. For the most part the movie stands on its own but the Vader bits inject the movie with a little case of Prequelitis that ultimately hurt the film.
Problems aside, Rogue One is a great concept that's executed well. It's a proof of concept that Star Wars can be more than just the one thing that it is and serves as a good entry point into the expanded universe. Many have criticized the film for sticking so close to established continuity but I think something so familiar was a dynamite jumping-on point for exploring other stories and other genres within the Star Wars universe. Will Solo be the Bordello of Blood to Rogue One's Demon Knight? Only time will tell but regardless of how this experiment goes, Rogue One was a great way to kick things off.
Next Time on Doomsday Reels
"I hope you don't mind me taking the liberty. I was careful not to drag in... any dirt."