Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is probably the most anticipated movie release of 2016, a year which saw the release of Marvel’s Civil War and Doctor Strange movies, both of DC’s attempts to build their new DC Universe, and the highly-anticipated sequel to Finding Nemo. But of course it’s highly-anticipated, it’s Star Wars, right? Except that this movie holds the future of Star Wars beyond episode 9 on it’s shoulders, being the first of many expected standalone films.
No matter how good the movie was, it was going to be successful. It was going to open about as well as Force Awakens. And of course, it did. But outside of diehard fans who bought tickets and avoided reviews, many potential movie watchers may be wondering if it’s good. Does it hold up to the hype?
Yes. Definitively, yes. Like any Star Wars movie, it’s action-packed, it’s frantic, it’s often delightful, and it’s filled with exotic worlds, strange aliens, engaging ground combat, and mesmerizing space battles. But to my surprise, Rogue One turns all of these elements to “11” and even outshines Force Awakens in all of these elements. It’s ground battles are bigger and higher-stakes. It has the best and most immersive space battles I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie. It’s locations and aliens are some of the most imaginative of any Star Wars movie. The humor is unexpected, it always lands, and is simply delightful.
The pacing of Rogue One is just as frantic and insane as Force Awakens. And to some extent, it feels purposeful, as the audience is pulled to the film’s inevitable conclusion along with the characters. Unlike other Star Wars movies, this film grapples with serious themes like the nature of a paramilitary rebellion and the difficult decisions that must be made for the cause. Unlike any other Star Wars movie, we truly see the terror and subjugation that Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, and the various Imperial leaders represent in the galaxy. And as each scenes pops in and out of consciousness, we feel as hopeless as the galaxy’s subjects must feel to stop it. And that makes us fall in love with our heroes more than ever before.
The truth is, we don’t get to spend nearly as much time with our heroes as we do in other Star Wars films. And yet, this movie allows me to feel just as strongly the characters in this film as I ever have for Han Solo, Princess Leia, or Luke Skywalker. Alan Tudyk’s voice acted K-2SO is officially my favorite droid in Star Wars, encompassing something between the barely comprehensible sarcasm of R2-D2 and the sadistic joy of HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic.
Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe and Weng Jiang’s Baze Malbus both surprised the heck out of me. The chemistry of both characters is palpable and they are both far deeper characters than I would have expected. As I understand it, neither character was included in the original script drafted by Gary Whitta, but despite that, I can’t imagine this movie existing without these characters. They are the glue that keeps this team together and contribute to some of the much-needed warmth and comedy in this movie.
Felicity Jones does a fantastic job of selling Jyn Erso’s nature, her goals, and the charisma that eventually sparks from her being. But Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor was a pleasant surprise. A dark and brooding character, he serves as an important anchor for the movie’s darkness and yet contains an incredible amount of character depth. I could see an entire movie about either of these characters, but Cassian Andor seems to have the most depth.
However, the pacing of the film seems to hurt some of its best characteristics. The film dives into some deep and dark territory, but it never hangs around there enough for us to really contemplate what it means. Many of the film’s most imaginative locations are glossed over in the desire to keep the action going. And for that matter, the movie’s protagonist, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, suffers the most harm from the movie’s pacing.
Many of the characters are mostly static, but Jyn’s character, beliefs, and motivations change quite drastically from the film’s beginning to its end. And unfortunately, on a first viewing, this dynamic shift can seem to be a bit too quick, maybe even undeserved. Although I understand the reasoning for shifting her beliefs and convictions, I feel that the film doesn’t concentrate enough on the events that change her, and that may make some audiences feel that her character is a bit weak. Which is disappointing, especially after the surprising strength and punch of character design that Daisy Ridley’s Rey gave us last year.
Movie critics are quite divided on this movie, though, seeing that Metacritic currently rates it at a 63%. But the list of reviews listed show a lot of review between 80% and 100% and then several reviews sitting around 20-40%. Part of this is explained simply by the simple fact that some reviewers are going to prefer movies that boldly and firmly dive into social and so-called “important issues” and some reviewers will have a deep love for “fun” fantasy like this movie.
But the negative ones are bringing up some good points, pointing to the fact that the movie did go through four completely different writers, experienced extensive reshoots, and moved through three different Executive Editors, with the last one getting top billing credit. All this means that the film is a collection of the ideas and visions of many different people, and it does show. The film tries to be not only a fun space opera fantasy but also a dark and gritty military film. It shows off cool technology and Star Wars geeky fan service at the same time that it boldly addresses some very real social-political issues in the world today.
The film does a pretty good job of attempting to do both of these things, but the fact that it still needs to be a frantic Star Wars movie means that the most interesting aspect of this movie, the dark, philosophical, socio-political commentary, may be lost on anyone who sees it only once. Thankfully, its entertaining enough, and deep enough, to be able to be watched over and over again. And as we do (or at least as I absolutely will), maybe this film will reveal itself to be something much more special.
But with that said, even after a single viewing, Rogue One is at least in my top three Star Wars movies of all time. And coming from a Star Wars nerd, that’s huge praise. This movie, out of any other, finally captures the wonder, the depth, and the emotional punch of the Star Wars Extended Universe books that truly made me fall in love with Star Wars.