If you think Star Wars is a massive storytelling sandbox that is frequently at its best when in the hands of people who have been fans of the property since 1977, then buckle up because you’re probably going to step out of the theater at the end of Rogue One feeling like this is a small but exciting step towards a world in which we see pretty much every kind of story told against the larger backdrop of this dense and richly detailed fantasy world. I’m in that group, and I think there’s been some excellent work done on The Clone Wars and Rebels on TV and that the comics Marvel has been publishing recently are some of the most exciting Star Wars storytelling I’ve ever read. I’m enjoying some of the new books, and I respect the way they’re trying to make everything feel like it’s connected on a macro level. Rogue One has many moments that can only be described as naked fan service, and even so, I think it is exciting and daring and new in ways that are important for whatever future Lucasfilm is going to have as a production company and a storytelling force.
Rogue One tells the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young woman who begins the film determined to do one thing and one thing only: continue living somehow. She was left an orphan when she was very young when the Empire came looking for her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist whose work with kyber crystals makes him an invaluable part of the team tasked with creating the ultimate weapon, the Death Star.
While it would seem at first like Jyn Orso and Rey from The Force Awakens are cut from the same mold, they’re really not, and the differences are important ones. Jyn is a reluctant hero until a matter of pure self-interest pushes her into action, and the characters surrounding her are not exactly the typical Star Wars heroes we’ve met previously. There’s Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who we learn very quickly is willing to commit the coldest of cold-blooded murder as long as he thinks he’s serving the interests of the Rebel Alliance. There’s Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a former Clone soldier who is now basically made of spare parts. There’s Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who evidently defects so he can deliver a message from Galen Erso to his daughter. These characters exist at the fringe of society, and the tactics we see employed here make it clear that the Rebels are terrorists within the context of this society. There is a body count to this war, something that can get lost in the main films because of the sweeping storybook feel of them. This film makes it clear from the very start that you lose people in war, and there’s no reset button, and just because you are doing the right thing, it does not mean that you will ever get what you want or find any peace.
Things aren’t much better on the Imperial side of things. Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) may be the one who had the vision that made the building of the Death Star and the perfection of its revolutionary weapons system possible, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the one who benefits from it. He has superior officers who would love to usurp his accomplishment and claim it as their own, and he has to deal with dissent from within, including that of Galen Erso, who Krennic personally pushed into service. One of my favorite overall things about Star Wars is just how venal and cutthroat the ranks of the Empire have always seemed, and the tradition is alive and well in this film to my great delight.
One of the things that makes Rogue One so interesting is how it doesn’t really feel like any other Star Wars film, but it does feel more like a real war movie than any other entry in the film series. War has a weight here that it hasn’t in any film in the franchise, and it’s an interesting lesson in the way perspective factors into the reaction we have to something. When you have all-powerful Jedi as your lead characters and you’re dealing with the central saga characters, there is less of an immediate threat in some ways. Richard Brody went nuclear on Rogue One today, and I think at least part of his almost hilarious rejection of the film comes from the idea that this is, by design, grimmer and uglier and mired at a level where these characters could very easily get wiped out and no one would care or notice. These are not the “main characters,” and that’s exactly what makes the film interesting. You can imagine a central saga character ordering someone to “get those plans,” and then two scenes later, the plans show up. Well, here’s all the blood, sweat, and tears it took to make that happen between those two cuts. It may be painless for them, but it cost someone some pretty severe pain, and here’s where we get to see it, close-up.
Alan Tudyk is very good as K-2SO, a former Imperial droid who has been reprogrammed, and it’s interesting to see how careful they are to never play his character as cute or too funny. He has a few good lines, but they also lean on the “odds” thing that is a C-3PO signature, and that feels like a misstep. I’m not crazy about Whitaker’s work in the film, and I’m not sure what choices he was making about how to play Saw, who has shown up as a character on The Clone Wars show to much better effect. Of the main supporting cast, the strongest players are probably Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus. Chirrut is a Force faithful blind warrior, not a Jedi, but convinced that the Force moves through him and acts through him as well. Whether he is correct or crazy is a running thread in the film, and it provides him with the richest supporting arc in the film, as well as some of the biggest crowd-pleasing moments.
Much of the film rests on the shoulders of Felicity Jones, and she is up to the task. Jyn Erso emerges as a human being, not a superhero, and the choices she makes are largely personal ones. Even after she is working for the greater good, it is still driven by very personal motivations, and by the end of the film, her heroism is not so much about bringing down a galactic Empire, but more about bringing her father’s work to its ultimate fruition. She lost her parents when she was very young, and this one moment represents her finally making peace with that loss. She doesn’t suddenly get everything back, and she doesn’t get some puzzle piece that will make her happy and complete now. She gets a chance to do something that will give some shape to the random sorrow that landed on her family, and that is enough. It makes the stakes feel very different than they do in most of the films in the Star Wars franchise, and it suggests that the further the filmmakers of the Star Wars Stories are able to step away from the central story we know so far, the better the results could be.
There are, of course, a number of things that connect this to the larger Star Wars series, and we’ll discuss those in a separate essay in Pulp & Popcorn #2 next week. For now, I’ll simply say that Darth Vader is used well, and the two scenes in which he figures heavily here are classic Vader scenes that feel like they belong in the original trilogy. I can’t offer them any higher praise than that. This. This is Star Wars. These Vader moments? Pure Star Wars.
Probably because of my age, when I say Star Wars, there is a part of me that still means the original 1977 film, before it had been retitled, above anything else. There were three years of my life when that’s all that Star Wars was. The rest was just potential, suggested by the remarkable “distant mountains” that were evoked by the film’s script and by the terrific lived-in aesthetic of the world. This film feels like it is taking place just to the left of that film, and that alone is such a strange and beautiful feeling to have for a few hours that I found myself simply happy to be sitting there soaking in Rogue One. I left the theater feeling a little bit drunk because of it.
I think the film ends stronger than it begins, but throughout, it succeeds by offering us a fresh voice in what has become a very familiar world. I’m not sure we’ve ever been asked to root for as unlikely a group in this series before, and when they tell the great story of the war between the Empire and the Rebellion, this will be a footnote of a footnote. But that’s exactly the point that Gareth Edwards and Tony Gilroy and Gary Whitta and Chris Weitz and John Knoll and everyone else seemed to be making, that wars are won by the faceless many more than they are won by those titans at the top. Rogue One is a sad, blood-and-dirt smeared reminder of just what that human cost really looks like.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in theaters everywhere on Friday.