Star Wars is enjoying a revitalization this decade. Last year Episode VII, the continuation from Return of the Jedi, released and ended up being one of the highest grossing films of all time. This year saw the release of another installment in the series. This time however instead of the next chapter, we have a prequel detailing some of the major events leading up to A New Hope. The idea of a standalone-ish film important to the overall saga is an excellent concept; and it’s something Rogue One succeeds at marvelously. Gareth Edwards of Godzilla fame directs a film that puts the Wars in Star Wars.
Rogue One tells a familiar tale at the surface. It follows a group of rebels in a mission to halt the progress of the Empire. Perhaps the biggest contributions to the franchise here are how the Death Star came into existence and how the Alliance acquired the plans of the weapon’s weakness. As a longtime Star Wars viewer, it’s great to see how this connects to A New Hope, a film almost 40 years old. There are other things to look out for, along with other references to the franchise such as The Clone Wars. Of course, the film doesn’t sell itself as one only focused on being one big reference; it’s an excellent showcase of quality written characters and some of the best action sequences of the series.
The opening act shows the main character, Jyn, as a young girl and how she got separated from her parents. It’s a well done sequence as it establishes her hate for the Empire, Krennic’s menacing persona, and how Jyn’s father got taken into the Empire to build the Death Star. The jump to modern day is interesting as we see Jyn a battle-hardened character. Felicity Jones does an excellent job portraying that throughout the film, especially in the first and middle act. Rey from The Force Awakens was a fun character, but Jyn is more interesting thanks to her more down-to-earth, realistic persona. Her journey from hardened prisoner to inspiration for the rebel cause was engaging. This nicely complements the rather grim atmosphere the story has.
Perhaps the most notable character is K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial Droid for the Rebel cause. One of the reasons why A New Hope is fondly remembered is for its introduction of C-3PO, who was constantly bringing humor. K-2SO plays a similar role in Rogue One, and it’s fantastic. (Also, unlike C-3PO he can actually fight.) K-2SO’s scene in the climax is one of the most powerfully written in the entire series. Most of the other characters are good. One of the few that wasn’t particularly notable was Rook. It’s easy to see what the writing was going for in his personality, but it didn’t work most of the time in making him likable and there was a severe lack of backstory. Saw Gerrera wasn’t memorable either and may have actually been the weakest character. The viewer doesn’t feel any sense of emotional attachment so when he stops appearing it’s more of an empty scene.
Even though the original trilogy took place in a galaxy controlled by the Empire, Rogue One is the first one where the viewer really gets a sense of what it’s like to live under this occupation. There’s a down to earth tone which lacks in the other films. This is also helped by the careful usage of humor. The Force Awakens most of the time had an upbeat tone with plenty of comedic scenes, sometimes forced. Rogue One is a lot smarter in this department. Its “funny” scenes are spaced out and when they appear they are genuinely good. Action films can learn a thing or two from the style of Rogue One.
As stated earlier, the film features some of the greatest action scenes in the franchise. The first major fight sequence on Jedha when Andor and Jyn arrive comes to mind. Not only is it choreographed well and there’s a great amount of tension, but the viewer also gets a sense of a brutal war backdrop. The climax is a big highlight; the Rebellion plan is fun to watch unfold, which leads to some -once again- great action sequences and emotional scenes. The tagline for the film is “A rebellion built on hope.” The final act of the story is unexpectedly somber, but with a glimmer of light in the end since it leads straight into A New Hope. It’s one of the most effective and well done climaxes in recent history.
On some last notes, the soundtrack features a few classic Star Wars themes. They are used effectively. (The opening crawl was unfortunately missed.) The other themes are very similar and while not as iconic as John Williams’ work, Michael Giacchino does a solid job complementing the legendary music. Darth Vader was one of the most highly anticipated aspects of the film. (He hasn’t been seen in film since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith.) He could have used maybe one more scene, but what is there is spectacular. It’s as if you can watch this film and then jump into A New Hope and not see any difference with the villain. If this is truly Vader’s last appearance in a film, he went out showcasing that he still is one of (if not the) greatest villain in cinema.
Overall, Rogue One might be the most well made Star Wars film to date. It goes darker than previous entries while containing pockets of genuinely humorous moments. Jyn’s character journey is engaging, and the theme of hope shines throughout. As iconic as the original trilogy was, there was sometimes a lack of tension because of cheesy writing. The serious tone in the latest installment coupled with the most intense Stormtrooper action scenes in the franchise gives the film a consistent atmosphere that The Force Awakens -or just about any film in the series- doesn’t have in comparison. Rogue One is a great film of diverse, likable characters and an excellent prequel to A New Hope.