No crawl, No Jedi, no problem! The first non-”saga” story of the Star Wars franchise hit theaters this past week. The saga refers to the (eventually) 9 films that revolve around the prophecy of the Skywalker lineage. This new entry, entitled Rogue One, attempts to describe the events immediately preceding the Empire’s pursuit of Princess Leia. That sequence opens the original 1977 movie, retitled A New Hope. (WARNING: Spoilers below!)
In this chapter, we follow the story of Jyn Erso. At a young age, Jyn watched as her father Galen, a widely-known engineering genius, was conscripted to build the Death Star (a planet-destroying weapon). She also witnessed her mother being gunned down by Storm Troopers as Galen was drafted into service by Imperial Director Orson Krennic. However, Galen is able to hide Jyn away with a rebellion ally, Saw Gerrera, to protect her from a life spent as Krennic’s hostage.
When we catch up with Jyn as an adult, her life has spiraled into imprisonment for a series of petty crimes. As she is being transferred, rebel fighters break her out. They hope that she can still reach Gerrera and obtain possession of a message from Galen that is being carried by a defecting pilot in Saw’s custody. From there, Jyn is matched up with a Rebel Intelligence officer named Cassian Andor. The two set off on an adventure that both closes the hole left in Jyn’s life by her father’s absence as well as discovers the truth behind his message. The revelation is that through his own technical prowess, Galen has built a design flaw into the vaunted Death Star. The weakness will enable an attacking fleet to destroy it entirely. Rogue One eventually finishes in an epic raid on the Imperial archival base of Scariff, where Galen’s technical data is housed. If the Rebels can escape with it, they can plan an assault on the Death Star, possibly saving the entire rebellion. Below are the rest of my reactions.
The Story Originality: While this writer had no qualms with the story of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the Star Wars franchise did receive criticism for its December 2015 release. Many of the plot elements, including the Star Killer Base and the mission to destroy it, were a redux from the original trilogy of George Lucas. This installment will receive no such grief.
Rogue One only featured one planet from the first six saga films, and we spent barely any time there except for indoor conversations. No Jedi were harmed in the making of this movie. In fact, no Jedi appeared in it. To be sure, there was certainly a “force-sensitive” monk named Chirrut Imwe, and a fan favorite Sith Lord was at his terrifying best in 40 years. But not a green or blue light saber was found. Rather than retread prior ground, the story moved in its portrayal of Jyn and Galen. It intrigued in how the Rebel plot to assassinate Galen would unfold. Lastly, it riveted in how the Rogue One crew could take on an entire Imperial Base at Scariff. This plot was creative and, in large measure, held together successfully. Even more remarkable is how, character-for-character, the roles within Rogue One mirror A New Hope. Yet, the narrative seems completely fresh. Credit goes to John Knoll and Gary Witta for the story, as well as Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, who penned the dialogue. Star Wars is at its best when it follows relatable underdogs rather than magisterial heroes. Rogue One excelled with the former.
The Imagery: In the prequel trilogy released more than a decade ago, the settings never appeared tangible or fully convincing. Recognizing a digitally-realized world, at times, lifted the bar for the suspension of disbelief just out of reach. As with The Force Awakens, no such problems were encountered here. Perhaps more than any other Star Wars movie, panoramic shots were used to give you the sense of how big these fantastic worlds really were. The sweeping views of a planet, both from the ground and from space via the Death Star, were impressive to take in. These effects only seem to be getting better with these latest editions.
The Acting: I can’t think of one performance that left me wanting. It starts with Felicity Jones (Jyn) and Diego Luna (Cassian), and then carries through to the great character portrayals by Forest Whitaker (Gerrera) and Donnie Yen (Imwe). Alan Tudyk’s dry sarcasm as the K2-SO android also perfectly punctuates each moment needing comic relief. This ensemble cast works wonderfully together. Yet, in the final act, when nearly all of them have solo moments to shine, they come through brilliantly.
The lack of a crawl: The last decision by director Gareth Edwards that I want to praise is the choice to avoid using the signature text-crawl for an opening. The block-letter introduction and accompanying John Williams score were as identifiable to the franchise as the Force, itself. That element was forsaken for this tale. Instead, the audience is deposited directly into the story. Starting out, I lamented this aspect of Rogue One. However, I now wholeheartedly endorse it. Unlike its seven sister films, this story is not, as George Lucas once described his original work, a “space opera.” This is not a movie about universal themes of darkness and light. There is no feel of a Greek Tragedy, in which the fate of an entire kingdom (or galaxy) boils down to an intra-family betrayal. This is a war movie, told by the scouts and rangers of the front line. The methods of both sides can be called into question, as we see Cassian murder a rebel informant early on. We also witness the extremists that generations of conflict can produce, as the paranoia and cruelty of Gerrera is on display when he extracts information from the defecting pilot. Rogue One may share continuity with its siblings, but it is not “of a piece” with them. Abandoning the crawl, I believe, is a fitting choice symbolizing that point.
What Didn’t Work
The Story Continuity: While I ultimately support scrapping the opening text, the beginning of the movie certainly felt busy (if not convoluted), nevertheless. We begin with a flashback to the Erso family farm (planet unnamed). After the memory of Jyn’s family being torn apart, we hopscotch across different planets. The defecting pilot, Bodhi, is being intercepted by Saw Gerrera’s henchman on Jedha. Jyn, meanwhile, is being freed from custody on the prison planet of Wobani. The rebels are plotting their next moves on Yavin. Unfortunately, the connective tissue between these fast-moving events isn’t fully established. How the rebel leadership knew that Jyn exists, to say nothing of her apparent alias and whereabouts in Imperial custody, is never conveyed. The rebels also just happen to surmise that she would be of some personal importance to Saw Gerrera. It is, therefore, left to us to assume that Saw must have been blabbing his mouth, at one time, to his Rebel allies that Galen Erso had a daughter in the first place.
In addition to that starting rockiness, another quick scene near the end feels misplaced. One of the (many) exciting Easter Eggs in Rogue One is a conversation between Senators Bail Organa (Princess Leia’s adoptive father) and Mon Mothma. Senator Mothma asks about dispatching two contacts of Organa’s to help relay the Death Star blueprints, which he hints is Leia and Obi-Wan Kenobi. However, at this moment in the story, it shouldn’t be known to the rebel council that Jyn and Cassian have absconded with their stolen Imperial shuttle (later named Rogue 1) to attempt the daring heist. Had this conversation been placed after Mothma was notified of Jyn and Cassian’s gambit, this moment would fit more in the flow of the film.
The last continuity issue deals with the thrilling debut of Darth Vader in action. Vader’s combat skills with the Force and his lightsaber closely mirror what we see of Anakin and Obi-Wan in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. By this point in Vader’s age, though, I expected to see him more limited in his motion and range. Within days in the Star Wars universe, Vader will confronts Obi-Wan Kenobi for a final time aboard the Death Star. This is the combat scene we witness in Episode IV: A New Hope, where Kenobi is killed. It now seems somewhat odd for there to be this drastic a regression from Vader’s swordsman-like prowess in Rogue One to his more kendo-like fighting style in A New Hope.
Digital Actors: One feature of Rogue One that left me unsettled was the fairly liberal use of CGI to de-age, or in some cases resurrect, certain characters. Equal parts squee and squeam is the reveal of Princess Leia aboard her “consular” ship at the conclusion. Fortunately, this graphically enhanced version is not on screen for particularly long, preventing the audience from reaching any particular discomfort. But this benefit is also won by the fact that we have had to adjust to long sequences with the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin. I hope that, at the least, Cushing’s estate was compensated for use of his likeness. The Star Wars franchise won substantial praise for its return to practical effects and settings in The Force Awakens. To use CGI versions of actors, particularly those no longer with us, steps on those accolades. If Mon Mothma can be recast (not to mention Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in their upcoming story), surely Tarkin and Leia can be as well.
What I Took Away
Despite those issues, Rogue One appears to strike the right balance in paying homage through Easter Eggs to the overall franchise, while also telling an original story. Even though this entry is more of a war film than an opera, Cassian and Jyn’s creed that “rebellions are built on hope” contains some of the idealism that undergirds much of the Star Wars canon. Another notion is offered, however, that may be troublesome. When the rebel council first votes against Jyn’s plan to raid the Scariff base, she is rallied by Cassian and a crew of some two-dozen fighters. Ready to take on the challenge anyway, Cassian explains that he and the crew have all done things that were morally and ethically questionable. When they doubted whether they could continue, they reconnected to the emotion of their cause. At this point, Cassian asserts, they can’t afford to give up and make all of the pain they have both caused and endured a waste.
This is frighteningly close to an ideology of fighting a war for the sake of fighting. What battles and conflicts have raged on, piling up body counts and scars, because one side couldn’t face the end? In any fight, one side has to accept that they have lost or the suffering from warfare will become both endless and pointless. As the Star Wars audience, we are fortunate to have advance knowledge of how this entire saga plays out. But that’s not a benefit extended to anyone actually deliberating truce or surrender in the moment. It’s a precarious idea to contemplate. As stated, though, it’s a view that Star Wars ultimately vindicates in Return of the Jedi. Regardless of how you feel on that question, Rogue One is absolutely worth seeing on the “silver screen” and deserves to be grouped among the top half of the franchise’s productions.
Submitted by Jody Money