In 1977, the groundbreaking science fiction film Star Wars was released, featuring an opening text crawl describing a period of civil war in which a Galactic Rebellion has won their first victory. “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.”
In 2016, Disney and director Gareth Edwards give us a visual representation of this event, the inception of the Galactic Civil War. Jyn Urso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of a reluctant Imperial engineer (Mads Mikkelsen) who is forced into the creation of the Death Star, is sprung from Imperial prison by the Rebellion. Jyn and an unlikely band of anti-Empire figures are tasked with finding Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), which leads them on the trail of the Death Star plans that jump-started the original Star Wars trilogy.
Rogue One is the first “non-saga” Star Wars film, and it does feel distinctly different from the numbered sequels. The majesty of a galaxy-spanning hero’s journey is gone, replaced with a tale of gritty war and dour, war-wearied Rebels.
The different feel is expected. The question is whether it is any good. As much as people were hyping up the film as being akin to a gritty war film, there is a ceiling to how much grit a Star Wars film can have, and it is not very high. While this is one of the darker installments the franchise has featured, much of the action leading up to the climax is more lighthearted than a war film would generally allow for.
For one, there is an attempt at the usual Star Wars witticisms, something that The Force Awakens also doubled down on. Alan Tudyk’s reprogrammed Imperial droid character receives the majority of this comic relief, and the attempt is largely successful. When the humor comes from other places, though, it feels less fluid.
The film also makes rather lame—and in one case improbable—easter eggs, as well as strange uses of CG de-aging technology that would be effective if it didn’t make characters look like something out of a Pixar film. It is surprising how all-in the film goes with this CG tactic, boldly trying for something that doesn’t quite work, as much as it is nice to see the character in question return.
The film presents a rag-tag crew on a mission that will become one of the most important events in the Star Wars universe. This said, the crew receives little in the way of characterization. Jyn Urso gets the most of it, given her centrality in the plot. Everyone else under the “Rogue One” call sign receives titles and names and little else.
There are some really great visual special effects work in this film. Action sequences are vibrant and extravagant, the set pieces taking center stage more than in other Star Wars films. One instance involving a solar eclipse is a visual highlight, but it is the film’s climactic final battle that really draws the eye.
In spite of the strong visual display, Edwards uses a lot of telephoto lenses that are quite limiting. Sometimes these lenses shallow the depth of field to the point where people talking on screen are out of focus. Given that the Star Wars galaxy is ripe with interesting landscapes, one would think that a shorter lens would be used more often in order to capture these settings in depth.
Rogue One presents some of the greatest action sequences that the series has seen to date, even if it lacks the dramatic emphasis of some of the action sequences in the original trilogy. Dogfights in the stars and trench fights on planet surfaces feel both reminiscent and modern at the same time, a combination that is surprisingly well-blended.
Yet, the film feels like an arduous journey to get to this climax. The narrative itself suffers from an emptiness in characterization. While the film allows room for stakes in a bold way that is in line with the timeline of the films, these stakes do not carry the emotional weight that they intend to because the characters are never fully realized.
The realism in the depiction of this fantasy war is a commendable new turn for the franchise, but the spectacle comes at the cost of strength in narration. It is refreshing to see the Star Wars universe do something different without wallowing in the woes of trade federation politics. Still, minor alterations to formula is not a substitute for strong storytelling practices. Ultimately, Rogue One is a fun, flawed film.
Rogue One: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)