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Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

No spoilers. I promise.
Aisle Seat, Rob Slack

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Directed by Gareth Edwards

In Theatres

This one's for Roy Kreutzberger. Because I told him I would. 

A moment for the non-Roy Kreutzberger Star Wars fan who is watching the trailers for Rogue One and wondering where Daisy Ridley and John Boyega and Oscar Isaac and everyone else from last December's The Force Awakens went and why is the Death Star back and where is Chewbacca? Rogue One isn't a follow up to The Force Awakens. It's kind of a sequel to the prequels. But not really. It's more of a prequel to the original than a sequel to the prequels. Or as Mark Hamill posted on Twitter, "it is a sequel to the prequels of the sequels of the prequels that are the originals in which this is a prequel of, but not a sequel to the sequel of the originals". Hope that clears everything up.

Anyway. Rogue One is set before the original Star Wars, the one the kids call A New Hope. And after Revenge of the Sith. As Kathleen Kennedy, producer and president of Lucasfilm, pointed out in a recent interview when asked about a sequel to Rogue One - the sequel to Rogue One already exists. It came out in 1977. 

So, we have the when of Rogue One. But what about the what of Rogue One. What is it? The plot of Rogue One is summarized in the opening crawl of Star Wars, the original: It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armoured space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

And is Rogue One any good? Yes. Yes, it is. 

It has some issues. Some of the dialogue is clunky. And Darth Vader should never, ever, ever make a pun. And a couple of the Easter eggs take the audience out of the film and add a "huh?" when there shouldn't be. And one character in particular is the textbook definition of uncanny valley. The pacing doesn't really allow for an easy transition from uncaring criminal to selflessness. Some of the extended cast is criminally underused. And the Star Wars universe really loves its abandoned children. But then, so does Disney and so do comic books. 

But it really is good. Director Gareth Edwards, who upended expectations with Godzilla by rarely showing the titular monster, flips the table on the expectations of a Star Wars movie. From the opening shot to the last, this is the first film in the franchise since Empire to toss out the formula. There is no opening crawl. There is no John Williams opening overture, though pieces of his themes play under some scenes. Rogue One is less a play on Hidden Fortress and more of a play on The Dirty Dozen or Ocean's Eleven or the Fast and Furious films if that's more up your alley. A diverse group of strong personalities with conflicting goals and ideals and motivations comes together to carry out a mission. 

Gareth Edwards is kind of a perfect director for Rogue One. He deconstructed the monster film with his first feature, Monsters. He payed homage to Jaws with his Godzilla. And in Rogue One he takes apart the Star Wars franchise and digs deep for those emotional moments that have carried the franchise for nearly forty years. He may return to the limited colour palate of the original film, that doesn't mean he isn't going to mess with the audience's expectations.

Generally, the cast of Rogue One is quite good. Ben Mendelsohn, who is amazing in pretty well anything he appears in - watch Killing Them Softly to see him steal a film from Brad Pitt - makes his Orson Krennic more than a moustache twirling villain. Ambitious and cruel and petulant, he also has a twisted charisma and charm. Diego Luna takes a role that on paper probably looked like Han Solo Mark II and brings a depth and a need for redemption. Riz Ahmed continues what began with The Night Of and continues to be one of the most exciting actors working today. Alan Tudyk's K-2SO is more than a one joke CGI creation. His re-wired filterless Empire droid has so much heart and soul that it feels really weird to write that about a character that is essentially a series of ones and zeros. K-2SO very nearly steals the film. Donnie Yen brings the martial arts to a franchise that has been desperately missing them ever since Darth Maul got chopped up real good. 

Felicity Jones' performance may be the subject of great controversy. Where others see a lack of expressiveness, I see a stoicism. I enjoyed her performance in Rogue One. Some might try to compare her work here to Daisy Ridley's star making turn in The Force Awakens, but Rey is a completely different character than Gyn and The Force Awakens is a completely different film than Rogue One. 

Really, my only complaint about the performances is the underuse of Riz Ahmed. But that is a personal feeling, not really a criticism of the film. I just dig this actor so damn much and he brings such a quiet intensity to every role, he sells so much with just his eyes, that I wish he had more of a role in Rogue One

Something else that allows the film to really work is show, don't tell. The film works on the assumption that you know the universe. And if you don't, well, they aren't going to spend a lot of time explaining things. A few things are explained, but there's never a "as you know" moment. The Rebel Alliance, always referred to but never really examined in the franchise, is shown to be a fragile alliance of disparate ideas and motivations. It feels like it's about to collapse on itself. Things are being asked of its operatives that are morally questionable. Decisions are being made, or not being made, with only raw emotion and fear to guide them. Instead of the united good guys, the Rebels are an alliance of moderates and fanatics and the fearful in the face of a monolithic fascist Empire.

Anyway, I'm gonna wrap this thing up before I start spoiling things here. I don't know if Rogue One will work for people who have never, ever seen anything Star Wars. I can't really put myself in their shoes. I feel they might. But that might be because I have such good feelings for this movie. It's good, really good. Not great, but it is a really enjoyable movie.