As the initial installment in Lucasfilm’s Star Wars anthology series, Rogue One feels like a dicey proposition. Based on the first paragraph of A New Hope’s opening crawl, the film is an unasked-for return to the franchise’s gear-grinding prequel era that disillusioned fans and casual moviegoers alike. To be fair, George Lucas’s prequels were quite successful at the box office, but the $936 million domestic gross of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (that’s more than the amount accrued by The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith combined) sent a clear message to the studio that fans were burned out on backstory. Leave the past alone. The time has come to move forward with new characters, new intrigues and new, much bigger Death Stars.
Execution counts, however, and Rogue One has got it where it counts. It’s an unlikely triumph: a prequel that transcends its fan-service trappings to become a rousing, emotionally resonant tale of resistance in a galaxy bereft of hope. Rogue One is a smashing entertainment, a misfits-on-a-mission yarn that enthralls and surprises despite its predetermined outcome. The audience knows all too well that those Death Star plans are going to end up in the hands of Princess Leia – and, subsequently, on Tatooine, where another hero’s journey will begin. What they don’t know is the “who” and “how” of the rebel forces’ daring heist, and whether or not any of them will survive the assault on Scarif. It’s this uncertainty that lends the story a palpable sense of danger unusual for any Star Wars film; aside from potential brand-building utility, there’s no reason for any of these characters to live to see another chapter.
Rogue One departs from Star Wars tradition at the outset by skipping the introductory fanfare-and-crawl combo in favor of a cold open; the first shot is a spare, widescreen expanse of space scored to eerie effect by composer Michael Giacchino (who’s staked his claim to John Williams’s heir apparent with this tremendous score). And yet the sequence that follows is, essentially, the film’s opening crawl played out as a conventional prologue: young Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon) watches in horror as her mother, Lyra (Valene Kane), is murdered by Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s arrived with a stormtrooper detail to haul her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), fugitive mastermind of the Death Star’s planet-eradicating weaponry, back into the Empire’s clutches to complete his immoral masterpiece. It’s a standard-issue origin scene, but it’s staged and performed with a melancholy sincerity that sets the tone for what’s to come.
Flash-forward to the film’s present day, and, having spent her youth under the survivalist supervision of rebel militant Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), it’s little surprise that adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) wants no part of the resistance. She’s out for herself, more Han Solo than Luke Skywalker, though there’s nothing joyful or cavalier about her exploits. Jyn is just existing, rejecting purpose rather than yearning for some mythical call to adventure. She’s also not the sole focus of the narrative, and that’s why the film plods a little in the early going. Like many films of this men-on-a-mission subgenre, Rogue One has to burn a good deal of shoe leather setting up the parameters of its mission. There’s a bit of plotting nonsense about Saw’s connection to the mining of the power source for the newly-constructed Death Star’s primary weapon, but that’s just an excuse to reunite Jyn with her former guardian (who’s received a hologram message from her still-living father). Still, in terms of setup/payoff, it’s overly fussy business.
There’s also the introduction to the crew, which is where Rogue One sinks its hooks into the audience. Though the team’s default leader, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), doesn’t click as a character until late in the second act, let’s face it: Lee Marvin’s Major Reisman is no one’s favorite character in The Dirty Dozen; it’s nutjobs like Franko and Maggot that invigorate the film. The immediate standout in Rogue One is K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid given endearing voice by Alan Tudyk. He’s a marvelous creation, a brutish robot whose martial mindset has been replaced with an offhandedly-brutal honesty (think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Marvin crossed with the aggrieved entitlement of a middle sibling). Matching K-2SO in the scene-stealing department is Chirrut Imwe, a force-obsessed blind swordsman played to the keister-kicking hilt by martial arts legend Donnie Yen. Remember how disappointed you were when Iko Uwais and Yuyan Ruhian were wasted in The Force Awakens? Donnie Yen brings the ruckus and then some in Rogue One (while imbuing the film with a spiritual center). There’s also Riz Ahmed, a tad underwritten as the defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, and Wen Jiang as Chirrut’s loyal protector Baze Malbus.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Rogue One is the happenstance manner in which these weirdos find each other. There’s a cosmic pull tethering them together, binding them as brothers and sisters on a mission to save the galaxy from a fascistic, force-governed power. Though Jyn’s motivation is on one level personal, her selflessness is drawn out by her ersatz band of brothers; when she realizes she has more to gain by giving up her life for the greater good, the film snaps into focus and speeds forward into a third act that – blow-for-blow, cut-for-cut – is as exciting and masterfully edited as any extended set piece in the Star Wars franchise.
To my eyes, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that the visual effects in the final third of Rogue One represent a new high-water mark for ILM. It’s as if they watched Return of the Jedi’s climactic battle and said, “Let’s do this on steroids.” Indeed, it’s the Brian Bosworth of space battles, parallel action at its most Lyle Alzado. The Lucasfilm team effortlessly shifts from land-based combat to ferocious outer-planet dogfights, building to an improvised tactic that’s positively balletic in its wanton destruction.
The f/x are so on point here that you can’t help but lament the CG awfulness of Moff Tarkin, who looks like he wandered in from 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Obviously, Lucasfilm was faced with a no-win situation here. You can’t have a film partially set on the Death Star without Tarkin. Omitting him would be distracting, cutting around him would be distracting and, it turns out, presenting him as a CG character is distracting. It’s one thing to insert a creature like Gollum into a live-action situation, and quite another to work up a flesh-and-blood simulation of the late, great Peter Cushing. Lucasfilm probably chose the least of all evils here, but it feels like they could’ve done a better job of integrating him into these scenes. I can’t imagine they’re pleased with their work here (or with another CG-envisioned character who could’ve easily been left off-screen). Though they’re not narratively essential, the Darth Vader scenes are far more enjoyable; you can’t put a premium on hearing James Earl Jones voice the dark lord (most likely) one last time.
As a film, Rogue One is a lot like its protagonist; it’s searching for purpose and relevance at a time when it’d be all too easy to give up on your fellow man (or droid or alien, as the case may be). There’s a great moment early in the assault on the Empire’s tropical stronghold where K-2SO rattles off the odds of completing their mission. What with their lack of reinforcements, the best-case scenario has them achieving thirty-three-percent of their goal. If self-preservation is all that matters, there is no reason to press forward; the cavalry is not on the way, and even if it were there’d still be little chance of succeeding. But Jyn and Cassian and the rest of these lovable losers press on because the only alternative is a return to the hopeless normalcy of their lives. They are not Jedi. There is no promise of ghostly permanence. There’s just the mission, and the chance to beat back a fear-mongering horde of fascists. Rogue One has been in development for years. Lucasfilm couldn’t have anticipated this moment, but it couldn’t be better suited to it. For the first time in the medium’s history, a by-committee studio tentpole is the most essential film of its year.