8 movies in, not including Episode VIII (or is it 10 movies in, if you include the Ewok movies?), and we get the first non-episodic Star Wars movie, taking place between Episodes III & IV. While some may think of it as Episode 3.5, it’s more like 3.9 since it’s a direct prequel to A New Hope. With many Star Wars spin-offs planned for the foreseeable future, one can’t help but wonder how long it will be before this franchise starts to feel like episodes of a TV show that used to know what it was but doesn’t anymore. But we’re not there. Yet, at least. This is the story of the Death Star plans, a story fans have been curious about for decades. Just don’t expect a lot of lightsaber action or any mention of the name “Skywalker”. And don’t expect this to be the start of a new trilogy either. This is a standalone Star Wars movie. One might even call it…Rogue.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a prisoner of the evil Galactic Empire, which makes her the perfect recruit for the small but growing Rebel Alliance, who’ve learned that her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), who she presumed was dead, has been working for the Empire for many years building a planet-destroying super-weapon called the Death Star. Galen knew the Empire would find a way to build the weapon without him if he didn’t agree to help, so he purposely installed a weakness in his new super-weapon so that it could be destroyed by anyone daring enough to try. Upon learning this, Jyn leads a small group of Rebel soldiers on a quest to find the Death Star plans and give the galaxy a new hope.
For the most part, Rogue One is a very run-of-the-mill good vs. evil movie. The characters travel from world to world, some familiar, others new, finding the necessary clues that lead them to their “MacGuffin”. You, the viewer, are really just along for the ride, and that’s where being a fan comes in handy. They might as well have called this movie Fan Service: The Movie, because man oh MAN there’s a lot of it! Even the prequels get some nods. When I first heard Jimmy Smits was reprising his role as Bail Organa, I thought, “Great! Does he actually do anything this time?” Sadly, he does, if possible, even less here than he did in the prequels. That’s the problem with fan service; it’s meant to get your attention, not add to the story. Speaking of which, the story does move along at a brisk pace, and a lot of the action set-pieces do impress. But in a movie where the ending has been known for nearly 40 years, it’s difficult to get truly invested in their struggles. I was entertained, but I was also waiting for surprises that I knew would never come.
With hardly any familiar names or faces this time, you have only 2hrs. to see if the new characters measure up to nearly 40 years of competition. I myself found the new characters uncompelling and often one-dimensional. Jyn Erso takes point, but without her father and the work that he’s done, there’s almost nothing to her character (that’s a Bechdel Test epic fail right there). Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is a Rebel who has been secretly tasked with assassinating Jyn’s father should they find him. But since he’s one of the good guys…well, I won’t spoil it. The droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is amusingly sarcastic, but is curiously incompetent when it comes to blending in as a droid(?). Donnie Yen plays a blind former Jedi (Zatoichi much?), but his over-reliance on the Force to guide his sightless quest soon becomes repetitive. Alongside him is his friend Baze (Jiang Wen), who has a really, really big gun. (That’s it; that’s his entire character.) And if you’ve seen a single trailer, you already know that Darth Vader makes an appearance, although 85-year-old James Earl Jones’ voice doesn’t sound as menacing as in his younger days. Although one area where they really, truly excel is in the familiar faces that pop up, even the ones who’ve passed on. Peter Cushing may have died over 20 years ago, but you’d never know it given the near-perfect digital restoration he gets in this movie. Rogue One’s true villain, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), is sort of like Grand Moff Tarkin-light. He’s an Imperial Officer, he’s angry pretty much all the time, he’s also surprisingly incompetent, and his past connection with Jyn Erso is never fully explored, resulting in an interesting, but ultimately forgettable villain.
The Force Awakens was criticized for borrowing too much from A New Hope. Rogue One doesn’t specifically borrow from the previous movies, but it does borrow from many revolutionary film archetypes. It follows a ragtag group of ne’er-do-wells who don’t get along, who then learn to get along to fight the good fight in the name of hope. They spend most of the movie distrusting one another, with the “stink eye” prevalent in nearly every scene, until they realize that what they’re fighting for, hope, is what’s really important. We’ve seen that kind of thing before, and that’s okay because now it’s that + Star Wars. While the fans usually expect greatness (even though some admit there hasn’t been a great Star Wars movie since 1980), they may have to settle for this good-not-great entry, at least until next year. However, the final 30 minutes are easily – EASILY! – the best Rogue One has to offer, and the movie ends on a higher and much darker note than I could have expected. And let me remind you that this movie wasn’t just made with no sequel in mind, it was made with no sequel CLEARLY in mind. Remember that.
3 out of 5