Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The appeal of George Lucas’ original fairytale was always in its micronarratives: in the hidden tale of a monster tamer or broken robot or ruined building, which all add up to the sense that the worlds of Star Wars are lived in. Though billed as such a micronarrative, there is nothing standalone about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In reality, it’s as direct a prequel to Star Wars as you can get (practically to the minute). Depending on who you are, that could sound like really bad news.

As it begins, however, you’ll notice that even if it doesn’t stand alone in its plot, it does in its style. There’s no fanfare or text crawl to contextualize the world with grenade fragments of narrative, no serene and empty space blasted into focus by wonderful toys. A worn, hard-eyed man (Mads Mikkelsen) is arrested by Imperial guards for not serving them. His wife commits suicide. His tiny daughter escapes into a sewer. A long quiet shot off the lip of a grassy field feels more like it deserves the eerie twang of a Kaneto Shindo shamisen than the self-congratulatory thrust of a John Williams major chord. Michael Giacchino does a wonderful job splitting the difference.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography gives the electrifying impression that this is Star Wars with an emphasis on the “wars.” It’s the first to hit on those hidden rebellions against unstoppable machines as though they’re fought by vulnerable people on the ground, instead of hashed out in a tower by cosmically-significant swordsmen. In Return of the Jedi, a stoic rebel leader says, “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” I’m still not positive what Bothans are at this point, but I imagine if they could tell their story it would be a lot like Rogue One. If Star Wars up to this point has been full of theatrics, complete with medals and curtain calls and fireworks, Gareth Edwards sets out to film the guys cranking the curtains and wiping the floors.

This premise gives the action in Rogue One an urgency that Star Wars hasn’t known since The Empire Strikes Back. A grown Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is rescued from an Imperial internment camp and asked by the rebellion to find her father (Mikkelsen) before he helps the Empire’s crooked lackey (Ben Mendelsohn) complete their superweapon. The call to action is a necessity of these Arthurian type stories, but never in Star Wars has the call been met with this much worldliness. Jyn doesn’t want to help, not because Uncle Owen needs her to stay put or because she’s waiting for her family, but because she doesn’t give a shit about rebellions and empires. She spends every day trying to forget the dad who left her to die.

It’s so refreshing to see a hero with a reason not to be one. Jyn isn’t willing to become the rebellion’s action figure puppet: she’s got her own problems. I keep waiting for a Star Wars movie that’s a tiny, contained drama. I really thought Rogue One was it, despite the overarching connections to the original trilogy. But the drama becomes more diffuse as it becomes more familiar. I love Rogue One for how it looks and what it tries to be. There are times when it struggles to deserve that love.

The worst thing about Rogue One is how it takes a rugged, acidic human and gives her an arc she does not need, just so she'll fit better with the other heroes on the shelf. There’s a point where after her dad is killed as collateral by the rebellion, she preaches hope to that rebellion as though they’re about to play the big match against the Russians and she’s the starry-eyed coach ready to lift her teammates to victory. She acts out my least favorite part of the Disney Star Wars characters: they all seem to know how wonderful and important Star Wars is, not as though they’re living it, but as though they’re selling it. Weitz and Gilroy’s script resists this urge for so long, but seemingly as a ploy to give in when it’s most important not to. It turns a feeling person into an action figure who does a great job title-dropping the next film.

Nothing could be less believable for a character that started out aloof and flinty and hadn’t been given any reasons not to be. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting for that Star Wars sequel that really gets down in the dirt, and admits that none of this grandstanding about hope means much of anything when you’re a mobster’s slave or a bounty hunter or an orphan in a hostile universe. Rogue One can’t resist reforming Jyn into a Star Wars hero and that in turn makes Rogue One closer to being just another Disney movie than it should have been.

The characters will likely always be the most divisive element of Rogue One, but for most people I think it might be the opposite of what I’ve been saying. I think the biggest problem people have with this movie is that it’s not like the other movies enough. This isn’t the band of rapscallions that Star Wars introduced and The Force Awakens pantomimed. These are dirty folks, assassins (Diego Luna) and warriors (Jiang Wen), injured resistance moguls (Forest Whitaker) and de-robed priests (Donnie Yen). The only alleviating presence is a reprogrammed imperial droid called K-2SO. His deadpan bits work because everyone else is playing it so straight. He’s wryer than C-3PO: he’s like what Chewbacca would be saying if he sounded less like an armchair sliding across a metal floor and more like Alan Tudyk.

He’s funny, but Donnie Yen as the blind priest of a derelict Jedi temple steals it for me. His litany of belief in the Force (“I am one with the Force, the Force is with me”) is all the film needs to impart that special mythic presence that Star Wars has had trouble since The Empire Strikes Back making more subtle than a corollary for the corporation itself. Here, the handsome stuntman that’s been getting international bit parts playing henchmen presents a character that is in essence all that Star Wars has stood for, not a levitation trick or a laser sword, but a blind belief in storybook magic (and possibly in Buddhism). Rogue One doesn’t have a single lightsaber in it (almost) and that’s okay. Remember that Yoda never once instructed Luke in how to use his weapon; he believed that once you learn what’s really important, weapons are something that you no longer need. Rogue One tries hard, much harder than the other Disney sequels to Star Wars, to learn his lesson.

The film is as different in its action as in its purpose. Titles appear on the bottom corner of the screen like a Bourne movie (a series first). The relationships are no less regimented, with little of the series’ rosy-cheeked premise of an ongoing gaggle of friends. These aren’t heroes but maintenance workers, who gasped their last breath on an alien world somewhere, fighting for the continuation of their movie series. Edwards dares to ask if it was worth it, if Star Wars is a cause worth fighting for at all. He tries so hard to make it more meaningful than a lot of recognizable things strewn about like toys. But when characters have to be animated so that they look enough like the old actors (Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher), that's the sign of a series that isn't evolving: in order for them to be more recognizable, the film ensures that they won't be used or developed more than as a reference. Why can't we see an actor play Tarkin or Leia, doing new things, and being important to the story, and having scenes? Do they have to remain references only? A new story can't survive this kind of nostalgia lockdown.

Though the plight of each character in Rogue One may not be complete, Edwards ends them here, and that makes them ruggedly human. Cassian Andor (Luna) will shoot a friend first before allowing him to be captured, and he doesn’t necessarily grow out of that. The rebellion will bomb their allies if a valuable target is in range. This is a duskier universe, the kind that Lucas hid in a mob boss’s swarthy palace and in underground bars. There’s tactile world-building at work in Rogue One, which makes the characters fit their world more like fixtures in a Western than plucky protagonists of the average space adventure. If they don’t develop, it’s in service to a story that is more about placement than emotion, about the structure of a shared history more than the particular friendships within a gang of mercenaries (and as I’ve said, some of the development returns so hard to formula that it’s completely unwanted). It has an ending that will hit kids (even those who are already parents) like the dramatic pang they probably imagine all Star Wars has had from the beginning: this movie leaves you like an epic, more like The Bridge on the River Kwai than Buck Rogers.

In shots most would treat as procedure, Edwards translates those pangs into pure, pulpy wonderment. In its cinematic bones, Rogue One contains the visual poetry that Star Wars always strives to be in the minds of its participants. We have always been told that the Death Star is the size of a moon, something that even in this technological wonderland is a feat of engineering that can scarcely be believed. For the first time, we feel its size. Edwards and Fraser shoot it as though it’s a work of myth, with tangible gravitation, with a presence that looms over horizons like Von Trier’s Melancholia. At one-tenth power, it shoots its death beam onto a city. The destruction that blots out the sun, that sets the planet wrinkling in angry storms of rock and earth, feels as weighty as the end of a world. This is why Edwards puts us down on the ground in that city; he knows that in order to feel for something, we have to know it first. That single act of destruction is more potent than when the Starkiller Base blows up five planets. It’s because Edwards puts us there, and films it like it’s important. Fraser is returning to space to work on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and I couldn’t be happier.

Unnecessary references in Rogue One bog down the effect of its wonder. Some cameos are so explicit that they make you grit your teeth at the forced brand recognition (the guys from the cantina have no business being in this movie). Others, like the Darth Vader combat scene, challenge my strength as a critic. Of course, I love to see Darth Vader tear it up as that familiar agent of glacial evil, with whom Edwards does in six seconds what the prequels could not do in seven hours (he makes him cool again). A reference can be just a pointless callback. But just because people in the theater cheered, doesn’t mean that his part in the movie has no value. It really is cool. But it screws up the somber tone of the movie’s ending. Rogue One ends on a cheer, a cheer over the death of the good guys because the bad guys are so much cooler. To love this scene, and to hate it, tears at the fabric of what it means to be a Star Wars fan: that the cool stuff we recognize will always come back in a time of need to appease us back into the fold. I’m writing this on the day that the title is announced for Episode IX and it’s: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Why else would something rise that the previous film so passionately slagged off, except to make us happy again? That's how marketing works, but storytelling needs more heart than that. The trailer ends with Emperor Palpatine laughing. If anyone ever thought that Star Wars would grow out of itself, and forge new stories, and become bigger than its toys, they will always be proven wrong by this kind of appeasement.

And that’s why Rogue One is the one that I’ll always support: within a familiar framework and full of ingratiating junk, it strikes a visual style and hints at the tone of a story that’s different from the movies that surround it. Rogue One is brutish and beautiful. Parts of it are shot with epic serenity, despite coming out of the same toybox we’ve been playing with since 1977. Other parts are dirty and different and even depressing: these creators mined some of this stuff for new feelings. I sometimes marvel that stuff drawn for a film so old still feels like a fresh and believable take on the far-flung future-past, and Edwards gives it back to us as though it’s the first time. I love that he sees new images in old ideas. When the light unfurls in slats over the first shot of a pyramidal Star Destroyer, or armored soldiers wade up to an alien beachfront, Rogue One all at once makes it seem like Star Wars is going somewhere.

If The Force Awakens adapts Star Wars exactly, Rogue One starts to adapt it as we imagine it when we grow up and write out the extended universe. Edwards’ beautiful work makes the adventure seem bigger than the same four people spinning in infinity, even if it’s dragged down by visual cues and a plot progression that eventually loses confidence in itself. His style and his awe make Star Wars feel like a living world again. Some of us have been waiting for this ever since “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” first scrolled up into the theater with the same feeling of wonderment as someone saying, “Once Upon a Time.”

I think Rogue One must have been thinking of me when it omitted those words from the beginning, and tried to turn them into a whole film.

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Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Gareth Edwards

Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (screenplay)

John Knoll and Gary Whitta (story)

George Lucas (characters)

Jyn Erso Felicity Jones
Cassian Andor Diego Luna
Orson Krennic Ben Mendelsohn
Chirrut Îmwe Donnie Yen
Galen Erso Mads Mikkelsen
Bodhi Rook Riz Ahmed
Saw Gerrera Forest Whitaker

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