Star Wars is back! Merry Christmas, everybody!!
I hesitate to call this movie a prequel, because we all know how Star Wars is with prequels, but…yeah, it’s a prequel. Taking place in the weeks just before the beginning of A New Hope, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story follows the Rebellion’s efforts to find the newly-completed Death Star’s weakness and destroy it. To do this, they rescue Jyn Erso, the estranged daughter of the super weapon’s chief engineer, from an Imperial prison in the hope that she can help them get to her father. Jyn is reluctant to join the rebel cause at first, but that changes once she finds out her father is secretly working for the same cause, and that he has purposefully placed a strategic weakness inside the planet-destroying weapon. After seeing what the weapon is capable of, she decides to risk everything to save the galaxy from its power. Together with rebel captain Cassian Andor, his reprogrammed Imperial droid, and a team of other misfits, she sets out on a desperate mission to steal the plans to the Death Star.
You know how, ever since The Phantom Menace came out, most every Star Wars fan over the age of 10 has been clamouring for Jar-Jar Binks’ head on a stick? Well, we’ll probably never get to see Jar-Jar die on-screen, but in a metaphorical sense, I think Rogue One will go down in history as the movie that killed him. Everything about it is the absolute antithesis of every idea that led to Jar-Jar’s existence. It’s the first episode of the Star Wars franchise that actually feels like a war movie. There are no flippy lightsaber battles, very few goofy aliens, and absolutely no attempts to pander to the kid demographic. Just a bunch of outnumbered, outgunned underdogs trying to fight back any way they can against a hugely powerful enemy.
And it is dark. This movie makes The Empire Strikes Back look like…well, I was going to say ‘a Disney movie.’ How did Star Wars become less Disney after Disney acquired it? However it happened, Rogue One is not the type of fairy tale that made its parent company famous. For starters, none of the characters are exactly pure good. Almost all of them are trying to atone for past misdeeds, some of which were done on behalf of the Rebellion. And as for beating the bad guys–well, anyone who’s seen A New Hope knows that the Rebels succeed in getting the Death Star plans, but it’s pretty clear from the outset that it’s not going to be easy. The Rogue One team is made up of a few brand new characters who don’t appear in any movies that come later chronologically, fighting thousands of Stormtroopers who can actually aim for once and have an oversized gun–and a certain Sith Lord–backing them up. So…don’t get too attached to anybody, is what I’m saying.
Speaking of which, it’s hard to develop a lot of totally new characters in a movie as action-heavy as this one, but the Rogue One crew does a pretty good job overall. Jyn may be another female, British, brunette lead with anger issues, but she still manages not to come across like a Rey clone. Unfortunately, she’s also not as much fun to watch as Rey. (Which was a pretty high bar to clear.) But her partner, Cassian, is interesting enough to make up for it, with his moral ambiguity and need to atone for his past driving much of the movie’s (superior) second half. The blind, Force-believing ninja guy and his heavily-armed sidekick are a welcome addition, as well. But the best new character by far is the droid, K2SO, voiced by the great Alan Tudyk. His wonderful sarcasm and cynicism provides the movie some much-needed comic relief, and he’s also a lot better in a fight than most Star Wars droids. Alan Tudyk tends to be one of the best things about any movie he’s in, and this one is no exception.
But while the heroes are pretty much all brand new, there are some familiar faces here, too. Moff Tarkin manages to make several appearances, despite the fact that his actor has been dead for more than 20 years. The CGI work used to accomplish this is some of the best I’ve ever seen–which means it only occasionally looks like someone put a cartoon head on a live-action body. There are a few other cameos from the Original Trilogy, some of which feel more forced than others.
But none of that really matters. What matters is that DARTH VADER IS BACK. And he’s here to remind us why he’s the baddest Big Bad of all pop culture. Vader’s only on screen for maybe five minutes total, but he makes every single second count. He’s never been more terrifying–or more awesome–than he is in the final scenes of this movie.
Although Rogue One feels, if possible, even more like a love letter to the Original Trilogy than The Force Awakens did, it stands out from the rest of the franchise in a lot of ways. For one thing, it’s the first movie not to have the classic opening text stretching out to the stars. It’s the first movie without a soundtrack by John Williams (although Michael Giacchino imitates him pretty well). It’s the first movie without any Jedi in sight. And, based on my first viewing, I believe it’s the first movie in the series not to feature a Wilhelm scream.
It also differs from the rest of the series in its willingness to acknowledge the cost of a rebellion. Star Wars has always had a bit of a cavalier attitude towards unnamed casualties. It takes Leia about five seconds to get over the destruction of her planet in the very first movie, and most of the X-Wing pilots who die throughout the trilogy don’t get so much as a moment of silence from the rest of the cast. You could argue that the movies are just too full of plot and action to dwell on those casualties, but regardless, Rogue One is important because it finally makes those background sacrifices seem real and meaningful. Where other movies in the series have glossed over the issue, this one confronts the truth that defeating evil is never easy, and never comes without a price.
And it does so while still giving us the coolest, most epic battle sequence in Star Wars history. Good job, Gareth Edwards. I completely forgive you for Godzilla.
It might just be because my expectations were lower, but I think I like Rogue One even more than The Force Awakens. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a strong contender for the title of Second Best Star Wars Movie Ever. (Nothing will ever beat The Empire Strikes Back, obviously.) It’s not perfect–the first half feels a bit disjointed at times, with all the skipping about between planets, and for all his awesomeness, I can’t deny that Darth Vader does make a pun at one point. But most of my complaints about this film could also be made about every other Star Wars film, and it compensates for them in so many more ways than its predecessors. Rogue One is as good as Star Wars gets, and that’s good enough for me.
So far, this movie is my favourite Christmas present.