What Star Wars is, or is supposed to be, is not set in stone. The original trilogy may have been conceived as World War II in space, albeit a very adventurous, colorful version of it. But directors are free to present their own interpretation of the Star Wars universe. The George Lucas prequels offered us a computer game variation of it. And JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens… let’s be honest, that one was pretty cartoonish as well. The “starkiller base”, the CGI grandmother, the tentacle monsters and the evil hologram all gave me prequel flashbacks.
Abrams was being too frivolous and childish to give The Force Awakens any real weight. At the same time, it was the gritty parts of the original trilogy that I appreciated the most. The space battle in Return of the Jedi and the attack on the rebel base at the start of The Empire Strikes Back were highlights of the original trilogy. Rogue One continues in the spirit of that element in Star Wars. If Abrams’ The Force Awakens was a single step away from the prequels, then Rogue One is a giant leap to the opposite end of the spectrum. And I love it for that.
It’s not perfect. I want to give a balanced review and I’ll list some bad points, but overall I am excited about this movie and very satisfied.
The first thing that Rogue One does right is that it knows its place in the franchise and deepens the original trilogy. It’s a fine addition to that specific trilogy and therefore it adds much more to Star Wars than the fanfiction that was A Force Awakens. The story of Rogue One comments on the modern world the way the original trilogy did in the 70s. Memories of World War II were sharper in the 70s and Star Wars reflected on the fear and the eventual defeat of the powerful Nazis. Rogue One is more about terrorism and the wars in the middle east. About oppression, oil (crystals in the film) and weapons of mass destruction. It’s the perfect Star Wars story for our times.
The second way that Rogue One is in tune with the original series is that the story involved a family conflict. Main character Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has her own father issues, just like Luke had. Her father is a collaborator and seen by many as sitting on the wrong side. The storyline is not just about the Death Star plans, but about atonement and the legacy of her father. It’s a beautiful mirror image of Luke’s story with his father.
Looking at the plot and storytelling, the first half was a bit messy. A lot happened and I wished that the movie took some more time to introduce us properly to Jyn Erso so that her personality would come out stronger. As it is, the character is a bit bland. It’s a consequence of the quick pace and jumps between many locations and characters in the first hour. The second half gives us a great payoff, though. The tension remains high throughout the conflict, the cinematography is excellent and the story is grounded in memorable locations. The action is shot very well.
I didn’t like all the characters. In particular, choices were made to add CGI reconstructions of characters from the original trilogy, and the effect is a bit jarring. We still cannot escape the uncanny valley when it comes to designing fully human characters in a computer. I wish it wasn’t so, but what’s done is done. The presence of Donnie Yen and his kung fu skills was also jarring to me. It seemed a marriage of two worlds – Star Wars and Asian martial arts cinema – that have little in common with each other when it comes to tone and intent. The idea of a Force monk is not bad, but he didn’t fit into the Star Wars universe at all.
Darth Vader does make an appearance, and when he does, he is excellent. Some may be disappointed that his presence is limited, but this is not his movie and should not overshadow Krennic. Ben Mendelsohn plays Director Krennic, and he is a very memorable villain. In fact, the best villain since Vader and the Emperor as far as I’m concerned. He has the right tone of a weasily, power-hungry bastard. He was perfect. Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen don’t get much screen time, but their characters are good additions as well. Let’s take off the rose-tinted glasses with which we regard the original trilogy and let’s take a serious look at Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks and let’s not pretend that they were that good. Rogue One’s characters are fine in comparison.
I’ve been listening to negative reviews on Youtube, and I’m glad that I’m not a Star Wars director. Some people are never satisfied. It’s an exciting, epic, dazzling film that doesn’t shit all over the original material and makes you feel as if the Star Wars galaxy is actually a galaxy in size. What more do people want? It’s a great addition to the original three movies and makes me want to pop in A New Hope right away. I think that in the future, people will say: watch the original trilogy, then Rogue One, and then move on to the Abrams films.