When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, they not only sought to continue the main saga with a sequel trilogy, but also to branch the franchise out with standalone features and even entire series separate from the primary ‘episodes.’ After the sequel trilogy got off to a successful start with The Force Awakens in 2015, the first standalone Star Wars feature, Rogue One, was released the very next year.
Rogue One tells the story of the ragtag group of rebels destined to uncover the plans for the Galactic Empire’s newly-constructed Death Star. These are, of course, the same plans that will eventually end up in possession of R2-D2 and, subsequently, Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars film, A New Hope.
While Rogue One’s focus on connecting its narrative directly into A New Hope may rob it of surprises, it was a good point to start with for the first Star Wars standalone film. It’s familiar enough to make the transition easy, but different enough for it to stand on its own two feet.
The heroine of the story is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a renegade who’s been on the run from the Empire since she was a child. Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was once a research scientist for the Empire, but defected and went into hiding with his family once he learned of the true devastation of the Death Star he was helping to build. The Ersos were found by the Empire, including their Director of Advanced Weapons Research, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Krennic’s troops kill Jyn’s mother, and take Galen hostage to continue his work on the Death Star. Jyn, meanwhile, slips away, and is found by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who raised her as both a daughter and one of his fighters.
Fast-forward to the present, and an Imperial cargo pilot serving under Galen, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), defects from the Empire, and delivers a secret message from Galen Erso to Saw Gerrera. When Jyn Erso is finally caught by Imperial forces, she is set free by a band of Rebels. These Rebels are captained by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid companion, K2-S0 (voiced by Alan Tudyk…because Disney), who have received word of the Death Star and Galen’s message by an informant. They’ve rescued Jyn to help them retrieve the message from Saw Gerrera, as he’s such an extremist they’ll need someone close to him just to gain an audience with him.
Jyn, Cassian and K2-S0 are eventually joined by Bodhi, as well as Chirut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) – a blind man who draws strength through the Force – and his accomplice, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), who was once just as devoted to the Force as Chirut, though now relies more on mercenary weaponry to aide his friend.
Once Jyn sees her long-lost father’s message, she learns that he secretly built a weakness in the Empire’s seemingly indestructible Death Star, and the ‘rogue’ group sets out to retrieve the Death Star plans to give the Rebel Alliance a fighting chance. All the while, Krennic and his forces are hellbent on preventing the plans from falling into Rebel hands.
There are some issues with the plot. Namely, the film features a few sub-plots that don’t end up going anywhere. The most notable example sees Saw Gerrera wiping Bodhi Rook’s memory by means of a Lovecraftian alien, only for Rook to regain his memory the next time he shows up in the film by…having someone recognize him as a pilot. Okay.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story provides a fresh take on Star Wars movies. It deviates away from the hero’s journey format of the series and replaces it with military espionage. In doing so, it separates itself enough from the main series, while still retaining the franchise’s exciting action sequences and epic space battles.
There is a slight double-edged sword aspect to Rogue One’s take on the Galaxy far, far away, however. The film creates an intriguing plot out of a passing reference from A New Hope’s opening crawl, and it’s consistently entertaining. But it’s also a case of an interesting plot coming at the expense of memorable characters. The cast of characters in Rogue One aren’t bad, but their personalities don’t extend beyond what we see of them in their introductions. Star Wars may have always been a series built on archetypes, but it always (well, mostly always) knew how to build upon those archetypes. K2-S0 gets some funny moments, but otherwise, the characters of Rogue One don’t exactly measure up to the main heroes of any of the Star Wars trilogies.
Perhaps the one exception is Director Krennic, who continues in the Star Wars tradition of memorable villains. Contrary to other Star Wars foes, Krennic is neither a wielder of the Dark Side of the Force or a ruthless bounty hunter, but a recognition-hungry survivalist trying to rise the ranks of the Empire. Unfortunately, there is still some missed potential in Krennic. It would have made for a nice change of pace to have an Imperial higher-up in the Star Wars universe who actually believed what he was doing was for some greater good. Such a concept is briefly hinted at during the character’s introduction, when Krennic tells a defiant Galen Erso “we were this close to providing peace and security across the galaxy.” Galen responds with “you’re confusing peace with terror” to which Krennic ultimately retorts “Well, you have to start somewhere.” It’s a brief character moment that suggests there might be more to Krennic than the usual Star Wars villain, that maybe he believes the Death Star to be a necessary evil that – in his mind – would ultimately lead to greater good. But the film robs Krennic of this nuance later on, such as when he comments on how “beautiful” the destruction caused by the Death Star is.
That’s a shame, because it at first looks like Rogue One is painting things with a gray sense of morality not usually seen in Star Wars. Cassian Andor – a Rebel – kills one of his informants in cold blood during his introductory scene. Later, Rebels bomb an Imperial facility filled with scientists who are only there under duress. We see the darker side of the Rebellion in Rogue One, but we still can’t get an Imperial villain who isn’t cartoonishly evil?
This is especially curious when you consider that Rogue One brings back two classic Star Wars villains: Darth Vader (voiced of course by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (motion-captured and voiced by Guy Henry, with CG resurrecting the likeness of the late Peter Cushing). Krennic often butts heads with Tarkin in what is probably the film’s best sub-plot, and like anyone who isn’t Palpatine (or Tarkin, I suppose), Krennic cringes in fear at the mere mention of Darth Vader.
With two such iconic villains making a comeback, it further begs the question as to why Krennic couldn’t have been a little more morally ambiguous, since he was never going to be as threatening as either Vader or Tarkin, anyway. Though Krennic is the film’s best original character, he still feels like a missed opportunity.
Talking of Tarkin, the decision to recreate Peter Cushing as a motion-captured character was a bit polarizing during the film’s release. Many considered the visual effect an example of the uncanny valley, though I personally never found it to be too bad (except maybe the stiff shoulders). Though “CG Tarkin” seems to be a rare instance in which a visual effect looks better on the small screen than it did in theaters.
The visual effects elsewhere also look great, continuing with the trend started with The Force Awakens of combining CG with practical effects to make things (appropriately) look like a modernized take on the world of the original trilogy, as opposed to the prequel/special edition route of CG everywhere for CG’s sake.
Rogue One may have its missteps in the character department, and its over-reliance on A New Hope makes this first standalone Star Wars feature not especially standalone. But it is undeniably a welcome entry in the Star Wars canon. It’s consistently entertaining, visually captivating, and it finds creative technical ways to separate itself from the main Star Wars saga (no opening crawl, transitional screen wipes, etc.). And it’s just refreshing to see a prequel to a Star Wars movie that actually cares about maintaining continuity with the original. For example, in A New Hope, Tarkin mentions the destruction of the planet Alderaan as the first test of the Death Star’s “full power.” Sure enough, every time the Empire uses the Death Star in Rogue One, the film makes a point to acknowledge it’s only a limited taste of its strength. If only the prequel trilogy had committed as much to keeping continuity with the overall plot of the original films as Rogue One does with even such small, throwaway lines like Tarkin’s emphasis on the words “full power” from A New Hope. History may have remembered them more fondly.
Rogue One is a thrilling chapter in the Star Wars universe, one that both enriches the overall mythology and retroactively adds even more heft to the plot of A New Hope (again, if only the prequels could have done something similar). It may not boast the most memorable cast of characters in the franchise, but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is very much a story worthy of the Star Wars name.