It’s hard to make “overwhelming odds” consistently feel convincing. Blockbusters have relied on those for so long that their villains and threats have to keep raising the stakes in order to be taken seriously. Rogue One takes a different approach–instead of making a “newer and bigger” Empire, it reminds us why the original was so credible, injecting significance even into small-scale events and questioning our heroes’ confidence in their own beliefs along the way. If the excellent but familiar The Force Awakens demonstrated an understanding of why Star Wars: A New Hope is an enduring classic, Rogue One understands why Star Wars is still a terrific series with powerful and gripping stories to tell.
Young Jyn Erso, whose relatively idyllic farming existence with her parents is one day disrupted, feels like a very different person from The Force Awakens’ Rey: as Erso witnesses violence and collateral damage from both the Rebel Alliance and the murderous Empire, Jyn is initially more interested in a peaceful resolution than in waving either side’s flag. Her cynicism toward both sides of the central conflict bleeds into every element of the movie’s tone for much of its running time, and lead Felicity Jones does a great job of incorporating this into her performance, with her facial expressions in some early scenes resembling a caged animal’s. On a smaller note, it’s worth noting that the movie goes against Star Wars tradition even in the way it opens.
As a child, Jyn’s small home feels high-tech but “lived-in,” complete with glimpses of a stuffed animal and of walls that do their best to stay clean; dirt and grime are a recurring motif throughout the film, showing up virtually everywhere from crowded and cramped marketplaces to even the armored suits of the Stormtroopers, making the garishly clean interiors of the imperial Death Star (seen in much of the film despite the story having the decency to not contrive a way for the heroes to invade the installation itself) look even more stark by comparison.
The film’s next scenes bounce around among a variety of planets and climates, with some environments being among the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen in a sci-fi film; while the settings themselves feel a bit typical (desert planet, green paradise, crowded skyscraper/slum planet), many places are chock-full of detail in the brief time they’re glimpsed, with alien designs as convincing and in some cases truly alien as anything the original Star Wars trilogy had to offer.
It’s easier to remember Jyn Erso’s companions and unrelated side characters by their demeanor than their names, most of which are rarely uttered: the martial-arts master who shuns the name “Jedi” and carries no lightsaber (few are in the film) but shares an intimate, prayerful connection with the Force; the heavily armored gunner who develops a friendship with him; the suspicious thug who shows up earlier in the film and threatens to turn a bustling street into chaos; the complex individual with previous and difficult ties to Jyn, and so on. A standout is K-2SO, a droid with sarcastic wit and previous Imperial ties, and a recurring theme among Rogue One’s characters is that their allegiances aren’t always so easy to define as being “Rebel” or “Imperial” (some have chosen both sides and some would choose neither if given the choice), but even though most of these individuals don’t receive extensive development, they become interesting and memorable through their distinct personalities.
Since this film takes place so closely before the events of A New Hope, the Empire doesn’t shoehorn very many new (relative to the films) characters into its ranks, with one of them building up an intriguing and almost amusing rivalry with Grand Moff Tarkin, here a Governor played by Guy Henry covered over with really good CGI effects. The just-being-complete Death Star does get a demonstration, making for a genuinely disturbing scene despite being on a much smaller scale than Alderaan, honoring the seriousness of that moment without trying to outdo it as The Force Awakens did. The Empire feels competent, vicious (if sometimes visibly spread thin), and genuinely evil in a way that doesn’t substitute raw body count for brutal intent.
Without giving away too many details, the fight scenes look amazing and are very worthy of the most famous moments of the original trilogy, complete with sound effects and even familiar-looking lock-on mechanisms. There’s a very subtle allusion to Luke Skywalker, which you won’t find if you’re looking for him by name or creed. Rogue One really feels like a war movie instead of an escapist adventure in how it presents its violence as violence and not just knock-them-down-to-make-heroes-look-good “action,” and to that end it glamorizes the efforts not of a few lucky misfits sneaking around to just the right spot, but of masses of good and evil pilots and troops sacrificing their lives for their respective causes; complete with a literal storm-the-beach sequence that effortlessly blends space and ground combat, each side’s moment-to-moment victories feel more like applications of extreme force than an “oopsie,” keeping this from becoming yet another hit-the-weak-spot story.
There’s a compelling scene where even Alliance ships leave collateral damage, an irony that doesn’t go unnoticed in a film that becomes more and more involving with every moment of introspection. The film never wastes time with extensive lectures on the nature and meaning of good and evil (and could stand to have a bit more character development as it is), but that same question near-silently causes and fuels a great many events in Rogue One. That willingness to question itself, of the movie’s many strengths, is one of its greatest. This and the movie’s unflinching portrayal of war solidify its grim atmosphere, some of the darkest the film series has showcased since Revenge of the Sith (minus the clunky dialogue and stiff acting), making the end result feel truly bittersweet while culminating in one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking conclusions I’ve ever seen in a movie. If you remember a scene in Episode I’s beginning with Jedi deflecting hundreds of blaster bolts while looking bored, Rogue One takes that moment and devastatingly turns it on its head. It’s a brilliant follow-up to a well earned emotional payoff, complete with a flawless closing shot.
War isn’t always built on heroics, medals, or coming home to a spouse and family with one’s head held high, and Rogue One showcases the inherent tragedy and bitter cost of widespread conflict much more than a lot of blockbusters (including some installments in its own series) do. But even in the bittersweetness of its ultimate conclusion, particularly in lights of the already-resolved events it foreshadows, one message rings clear throughout the film:
Rebellions are built on hope.
Conclusion: My stardust
Rogue One wasn’t labeled or marketed as a numeric entry in the legendary Star Wars ensemble, but from its willingness to take thematic and tonal risks with its plot and characters (especially the partial depiction of war violence as blurring the lines between “good” and “evil” sides) to its spectacular presentation values (from the consistently gorgeous environmental shots and battle sequences to the gender/ethnicity-diverse crowd scenes and the tense, delightfully odd, and sometimes beautiful musical score), it’s a tremendously worthy addition to the canon.
The story feels like one worth telling, neither coming across as a rehash nor raising questions of “why wasn’t this element or character in the following films,” and it’s one that I recommend without hesitation except to young or particularly sensitive audiences. This is one of the best movies of the year.