(Note: This article is an expanded version of a review I wrote for the December 2016/January 2017 issue of the Rochester Community and Technical College student newspaper, The Echo.)
The MacGuffin of Star Wars: A New Hope was the stolen Death Star plans. While the non-canon Star Wars tie-ins have offered various accounts of how Princess Leia got them, we’ve finally gotten the true story on the big screen with Rogue One.
Twenty-two-year-old criminal Jyn Erso finds herself extracted from an Imperial prison by
the Rebel Alliance. Intelligence has reported the rumors that a secret Imperial planet-killing super weapon — the Death Star — developed by Jin’s long-missing father, Galen Erso and Director Orson Krennic, is nearing completion. The Alliance needs to find it first and make Jyn a deal; her freedom in exchange for her help in stopping it.
This desperate mission will throw Jyn in with various disenfranchised individuals, such as Rebel spy Cassian Andor and his droid, K-2SO, Imperial defector Bhodi Rook, former Guardians of the Whills Chirrut Îmwe and Base Malbus, and extremist freedom fighter Saw Gerrera, as time runs out and Krennic’s dreams come ever closer to allowing the Empire to rule the Galaxy unchecked.
As the first non-Saga Star Wars movie since 2008’s The Clone Wars, the big question the movie had going in was if the film series could support a non-Skywalker story. It’s been a common subject in Star Wars novels and comics, but could it work on the big screen. The answer is a definitive “yes.”
While characters may be somewhat subservient to the plot, the actors give performances that make them stand out. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso is a standout lead, with the scenes involving her and Jyn’s father (Mads Mikkelsen) creating the main emotional core as her story arcs from jaded follower to leader.
K-2SO steals the show with Firefly and Disney veteran Alan Tudyk’s deadpan delivery, with Îmwe and Malbus (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen) grabbing the rest. Îmwe’s mantra “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me” may eclipse “Rebellions are built on hope” as Rogue One’s signature line.
Andor (Diego Luna) and Rook (Riz Ahmed) are less memorable, but I think that’s more because of the pacing of the movie than anything else. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera may become a trivia question, as he was originally created for the Clone Wars TV show, one of the very few times that a tie-in character made it into a movie. His scenes are brief, but he commands your attention whenever he comes on.
Ben Mendelsohn is wonderful as the grasping Krennic, although the script gives him far less to do than the development he received in the essential-to-read prequel novel Catalyst. However, what we see here, in conjunction with the book, is more than good enough for the story.
Beyond the principles, there are a ton of cameos and minor roles from various returning characters. These familiar faces range from returning actors to computer wizardry, but all are welcome, with Darth Vader’s (voiced by James Earl Jones) brief return being the standout.
Rogue One’s recreations of the New Hope-era are perfect and flawlessly work with the originals and are packed with in-jokes of all kinds that create the atmosphere and draw viewers into the world. There are nods to the Star Wars: Rebels TV show in the forms of cameos from the Ghost and Chopper, plus General Hera Syndulla being paged over an intercom. The “May the Force of others be with you” line comes from a early New Hope draft.
There are even some nods to the old non-canon Legend material. For example, the idea that Tarkin first proposed as Death Star-like weapon is a Legends idea, I also suspect that the “Black-Saber” Imperial project, mentioned by Jyn as a file in the Citadel archive, is a tip of the hat to the Darksaber superweapon from the Kevin J. Anderson novel of the same name.
Another way the movie made the Star Wars world more interesting is the way it showed the darker side of the Rebels. Typically portrayed as the noblest of people, we get to see that moral compromises are as much a part of war there as they are in real life. For example, as alluded to in the summary, they essentially blackmail Jyn with a deal that’ll forfeit her life if she refuses. We’re also shown and told that assassination and other dirty deeds are necessary evils. However, the movie knows just how far to go with the ambiguity. The story’s main themes are hope and redemption, after all.
The movie is set to the music of master composer Michael Giacchino, who’s score managed the fine line of making the music his own and something new, but also seamlessly fitting into John Williams iconic themes, basically encapsulating Rogue One’s place in the franchise. Giacchino also got to be an unspecified background voice in the movie, for those keeping score. This is the third time Giacchino has been involved with the franchise; he wrote the music for the Disneyland/Disney World attraction Star Tours: The Adventures Continue and had a cameo in The Force Awakens as FN-3181, one of the stormtroopers that brings Poe Dameron to Kylo Ren in the “Who talks first?” scene.
Rogue One is a new, somewhat grittier look into the Star Wars world, but one that earns its place in the main series many times over and proves that Disney’s success with The Force Awakens wasn’t a fluke. I may create a spoiler-stuffed post somewhere down the line to discuss some of the surprises in the film, but I loved 99.99% of them. I wish the bittersweet ending had erred more on the sweet side of the spectrum and that the characters had been fleshed out more, but Rogue One was a satisfying story and proved that expanding on a piece of backstory can make the subsequent tales even more meaningful. The Force was indeed with it.
– While Rogue One has not plans for a followup movie, this slice of the Star Wars world will be living on in the printed world. Currently in print (not counting the reference books), there is a novelization by Alexander Freed, the prequel novel Catalyst by James Lucino (review coming soon on this blog), Rebel Dossier, by Jason Fry, which presents reports, documents, and other notes that the Rebels made during the movie’s mission. In future publication, Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe, will be starring in an upcoming chapter book by Greg Rucka, while Jyn Erso will be the star of a novel called Rebel Rising by Beth Revis.