Star Wars is the biggest movie franchise in the history of movie franchises. It’s a point that was driven home by last year’s triumphant, $2 billion-dollar hit—Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Audiences never seem to tire of these stories, though most viewers have only seen the main saga. For many, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be their first venture into territory in which Skywalkers are scarce and certainly not the driving force. What they will find on this new, standalone journey is something raw and real. Rogue One is a Star Wars story unlike any other, but with a strong undertow that pulls you back to what you’ve always loved about this galaxy far, far away.
Set between Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope, but much closer to the latter, Rogue One tells the story of the Rebels who stole the Death Star plans that were essential to the Alliance’s victory in that original Star Wars film in 1977. It is a story about the gritty, sometimes morally-compromised grinders who dig through the dirt, searching for hope in the places where it is hardest to find. The Rebels have always had a cause in Star Wars, but what Rogue One does better than any of its predecessors is show that these Rebels also have a cost.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has been cared for, but has spent most of her life on her own since her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), was drafted into the Empire by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Galen is a science officer and essential to the building of a weapon, which the Rebels will soon learn to be the Death Star. Jyn quickly becomes essential to the Alliance’s effort to convert rumor into actionable intelligence to try and prevent a planet killer from serving its function.
In charge of Jyn’s recruitment, which is a nice way of putting it, is Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel spy and assassin. Jones and Luna have a palpable chemistry that is less about romance and much more about bonding over shared experiences in compromise and loss. Both actors are brilliant on their own, but together they compliment each other’s performances perfectly.
It wouldn’t be Star Wars without a faithful droid and along for this ride is K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). K-2SO is Cassian’s reprogrammed Imperial droid who feels a little like C-3PO, but with a massive infusion of fortitude. In the long and storied lineage of Star Wars droids, K-2SO will go down as the badass. K-2SO is also one of the main suppliers of that classic Star Wars charm. Tudyk, who did all the performance capture for the role, is hilarious, providing some much needed comic relief in a very heavy story that continues to gain dramatic weight as it goes along.
Cassian and Jyn, through circumstance, are soon joined by Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and defected Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Yen is the show stealer as Chirrut, a devout believer in the Force, which he is in tune with, but not sensitive to. Yen carries much of the comedy, action, and drama of the film on his shoulders with an apparent ease that makes it seem weightless. Wen’s Baze is the hardened action hero with a heart of gold, who protects Chirrut, just as he has been in the years before we meet them in this film. Ahmed’s Bodhi deals in hope, wonderfully driving home the message that is at the heart of the Rebellion.
As an ensemble, these Rebels are incredible. Rogue One is the darkest Star Wars movie since Luke lost a hand and Han Solo was frozen in carbonite. It might be even darker, but these terrific actors band together to generate the heroism and optimism needed to ensure that darkness never feels overbearing. Rebellions are indeed built on hope and this cast retroactively lays the foundation for that new one in Episode IV.
Doing its best in the futile pursuit of extinguishing hope in this galaxy is the Empire. Director Krennic is the chief supplier of villainy in this one and Mendelsohn is the kind of bad guy one can find joy in hating. He is dastardly charismatic with aggressive ambitions that make him a genuine threat. Darth Vader gets his moments in the film, and they are awesome, but director Gareth Edwards wisely opts for restraint in his use of Vader so that Krennic is not overshadowed.
Across the board, the performances in Rogue One will stay with you after you’ve left the theater, as will the spectacular action that has more levels than ever shown in a Star Wars movie before. This is especially apparent in a third act battle sequence that will go down as one of the best in the history of the franchise. A thrilling dogfight in the sky is sandwiched between an epic space battle above and a gritty firefight down below. It covers all levels, from cosmic to hand-to-hand combat and it is all shot masterfully by cinematographer Greig Fraser. It’s not all about the third act for Fraser, though, as he’s handed in the most beautifully shot Star Wars film since Empire from start to finish.
Rogue One’s cinematography is worthy of an Oscar nomination, as are the visual effects. Though the film’s biggest trick doesn’t work quite as well as the movie seems to think it does, it is impressive. More than that, the film delivers several gorgeous, digitally-rendered landscapes and action sequences that look and feel as real as Star Wars possibly can. The visual effects and cinematography come together to make this fantastic story as beautiful on the surface as it is underneath.
It’s not all perfect, of course. The film trips over similar traps that occasionally caught the feet of The Force Awakens, though not nearly as much and, like The Force Awakens, none of those stumbles ever turn into much of a fall. Most of Rogue One’s callbacks to previous Star Wars films work very well. There are just a few choices that are overindulgent enough to trigger an involuntary eye roll. These are not serious flaws, however, as Rogue One succeeds in all the areas that count the most.
Rogue One is a remarkable achievement in blockbuster filmmaking. It is also an incredibly important moment in the history of Star Wars. The franchise’s first standalone feature is a rousing success. It works wonderfully on its own, but achieves something even greater by actually being able to enhance what we’ve seen before, successfully telling the story behind another story we know and love. Rogue One is an outstanding motion picture all by itself in 2016 and it makes the original Star Wars from 1977 even better and more meaningful.