How did the plans to the Death Star wind up in the hands of Princess Leia before she entrusted them to R2-D2? It’s a central plot point of A New Hope, and EVERYONE wanted to tell the story of how it happened.
Back when Star Wars was under the more laissez-faire reign of George Lucas and his company, there were at least half a dozen novels and video games to explain how the Rebels obtained those crucial plans. Things got so far out of hand that a retcon was eventually necessary, explaining that the Death Star plans had been broken into several different pieces, all of which were stolen and finally put together in time for A New Hope.
Then Disney bought out the franchise and made the controversial — though no less wise — decision to take all that shit out of canon. And one of the first movies they made was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, so that we could finally have a single definitive account of how the Death Star plans were stolen. In fact, placing this latest film in the context of all the other stories and media released so far in the new canon, Rogue One serves as another fine example of everything that Disney is doing right with the franchise.
To start with, it’s absolutely uncanny how everyone behind the scenes can so faithfully reproduce the aesthetic of the original trilogy, yet twist it just enough to create ships and locations and characters that are suitably unique. Thus Rogue One and Episode VII are both distinctly recognizable as their own unique films, yet they fit so beautifully with the established movies we all know and love. I don’t know how two separate crews have been able to hit such a fine balance so perfectly, but here we are.
That said, I saw the film in IMAX 3D and I really wish I hadn’t. So much of the presentation is made to look compatible with a film from the 1970s that the 21st-century gimmicks made for a jarring contrast. Everything still looked great, however.
Another noteworthy touch is in how Jedi and the Force are now perceived in the galaxy far, far away. The comics and films of the past few years have made the fascinating choice of portraying the Force as a kind of endangered religion, with intense reverence or skepticism — even persecution — given to the extinct Jedi Order and whatever relics they left behind. Thus the new canon has introduced something that — so far as I’m aware — was never really mentioned in the George Lucas era: The notion of non-Jedi characters who ardently believe in the Force and are highly knowledgeable of it, even if their ability to wield it is weak at best.
In Episode VII, this concept was shown through Maz. In Rogue One, we’ve got the blind monk named Chirrut. And because he’s played by Donnie Yen, of course he’s a stone-cold badass. But what’s even more remarkable is that even though he’s not a Jedi (though for all we know, maybe he could’ve made a fine Jedi if anyone was around to train him), Chirrut is able to accomplish tremendous feats through sheer fanatical belief in the Force. It goes back to the central theme of faith, which we’ll definitely getting back to.
Last but not least, Disney has made Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones, once again) back into a horrifying force of nature. I don’t know how they did that while keeping the prequel trilogy in canon, and it’s something that shouldn’t even be possible, but here we are. Vader only gets two scenes in the whole movie, but one is chilling while the other is pants-crappingly vicious.
But let’s get to the film on its own merit. The first thing to know is that this isn’t a movie about the real movers and shakers like the main series is. This isn’t a story about generals or senators or Jedi Masters — this is a story about grunt soldiers, criminals, guerrilla terrorists… you know, the kind of people who die making history without ever once getting mentioned in any textbook. In the main films, a whole planet would have to get blown up for our main characters to take notice. In this movie, the characters would feel racked with guilt and trauma over a city getting blown to smithereens.
(Side note: The Death Star as a WMD metaphor has never been clearer, as this film raises the subtle spectre of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)
Basically, in the analogy between Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Rogue One would be comparable to “Agents of SHIELD” or any of the Defenders’ shows on Netflix: It’s clearly part of the same universe, but told from a grittier ground-level perspective. Thus these filmmakers are able to portray the Empire/Rebellion conflict from a civilian perspective and get into all sorts of moral ambiguities that haven’t really been seen in the Star Wars universe before — certainly not to this extent.
A key example comes early on, when Director Krennic (our antagonist, played by Ben Mendelsohn) describes the Death Star as a means of maintaining peace and security throughout the galaxy. Thus the Empire/Rebellion conflict is reframed as yet another timely debate over freedom versus security, a retcon that puts a whole new perspective on forty-plus years of franchise history.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Saw Gererra (Forest Whitaker, playing the live-action debut of a character who debuted in the Clone Wars animated series), a man only barely kept alive by umpteen bionic implants. (He’s not quite more machine than man, but getting there.) He’s a terrorist in no uncertain terms, leading a heavily armed militia in explosive and fatal strikes against the Empire. So he’s basically an Osama bin Laden figure — such an extremist militant nutjob that even the Rebellion is hesitant to work with him — and he’s a good guy!
But easily the most prominent case in point is Galen Erso, played by Mads Mikkelsen. Here we have a brilliant engineer who would rather live with his family in seclusion than see his genius used for war. Yet he still takes on the job of designing the Death Star, because the Empire would’ve moved ahead with it anyway and found someone who wouldn’t deliberately put in a two-meter-wide Achilles Heel.
Then we have our main cast. There’s Galen’s daughter (Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones), who opens up the film looking out for no one but number one and eventually chooses the Rebellion as the lesser of two evils. There’s Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who — in his introductory scene, mind you — straight-up shoots an informant in the back rather than let him be captured by Stormtroopers. There’s also Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), the neurotic Imperial defector who kicks off the whole plot. Hell, even the comic relief is a reprogrammed Imperial droid named K-2SO (voiced and mo-capped by Alan Tudyk) — imagine Chewbacca stuck in C-3PO’s body and you’d be getting close.
Easily the weak link of the cast is Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), the gun-toting muscle behind the aforementioned mystic Chirrut. The partnership between them wasn’t quite as well-defined as it probably should have been, but the interplay between them was still great fun. Plus, Baze gets a neat (if rushed) subplot about learning to let go and embrace the Force.
In some way or another, everything in this movie comes back to faith and hope. This is most obvious with Jyn, as she has the most prominent character arc in rediscovering faith in her father. She’s also (with no small amount of help from the other characters) the one who comes the furthest in learning how to hope that the fight against the Empire is a just and possibly winnable one. And on both counts, she’s the loudest in converting everyone else around her.
These themes are especially crucial, as it’s what ultimately separates the good guys from the bad guys. It’s repeatedly shown that those of the Empire have absolutely zero faith in each other’s abilities or devotion to the cause, and the Rebels are at their best when they trust each other. That said, there’s a flip side to faith. It’s all too easy to justify anything — up to and including mass murder — as service toward the greater good. The deeply devoted might even throw down their own lives, dying for a better future they’ll never get to see. But how far is going too far? Where is that line drawn? How can anyone tell what’s worth that kind of sacrifice?
All of this is heavy story material, which helps make the story and the characters so much more compelling. Which is imperative in this case, because it’s a prequel. We know that the Rebellion will eventually succeed in getting the plans. And the film only ends mere seconds before the next film begins, so we already know there’s no chance of a sequel. And obviously, none of the characters exist in any of the subsequent films (the days of retconning the original trilogy are mercifully over). So there’s always the question of which characters will live to see a future tie-in, and which will die against the overwhelming odds.
That said, the film has no shortage of callbacks and familiar faces. Some are cast with lookalikes (a highlight is Genevieve O’Reilly, reprising her dead-ringer Mon Mothma impression from Episode III), and some are the original actors (like the aforementioned James Earl Jones). We’ve even got a couple of characters — I don’t dare say whom — portrayed in their New Hope-era selves by way of CGI. That was incredibly ballsy. Nothing less than perfection will do when it comes to the animation of something we all know so well already, and the technology still isn’t quite there yet. It’s good enough to get by, sure, but the Uncanny Valley is still there.
Getting back to the Rebellion for one final note, I was very impressed with how they were so clearly portrayed as the underdogs. It was great to see them operate by way of stealth, subterfuge, and sabotage against such a massive and well-equipped war machine, especially when the stakes have been well-established as literally life or death. That did so much to make the action scenes so jaw-dropping, and to help sell the illusion that — against everything we already know — the Empire might actually win this.
So are there any nitpicks? Well, the plot is contrived in a few tiny places, particularly with all the unnecessary and illogical obstacles put in Jyn’s way as she tries to escape with the plans. It was also ridiculous how the Rebellion left our plucky outlaws entirely on their own, until our heroes are in trouble and then the whole fucking Rebel fleet mobilizes instantly to go help. Though it did give us some amazing space battles, at least.
But the big one for me was the Michael Giacchino score. I had always pegged him as the heir apparent to John Williams, and this picture sadly showed just how far he has left to go on that account. The classic Star Wars themes are of course referenced, but regrettably, that only served to show how bland the rest of the score really was. Then again, I understand that there were some difficulties with regards to the score, as Giacchino was tapped to step in for Alexandre Desplat with only three months’ notice. So there’s that.
The best thing I can say about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is that it’s a prequel that retroactively makes the first film so much better. In comparison to the broad moral strokes of the original trilogy, this film does so much more to define what the Rebel Alliance is, what the Galactic Empire is, why the two are locked in conflict, and why one must prevail over the other. In the process, the film is sure to highlight the massive imbalance of power between the two sides, utilizing them for fantastic action sequences and heartfelt messages about hope.
The characters are compelling and the story is exciting. It’s a movie with all the planet-hopping, spaceship-dogfighting, blaster-shooting, swashbuckling fun you’d expect from a Star Wars film; all with hefty moral quandaries and a side of effective comic relief. Keep it coming, Disney.