Rogue One takes what could’ve been trivial noodling around in Star Wars lore and turns it into a proficient sci-fi action movie building to intimations of grand space operatic tragedy. It’s the second film made after creator George Lucas sold his remarkable galaxy to Disney, who have thus far been studious, respectful, and cautious custodians. Instead of an idiosyncratic vision from one artist’s mind, it’s a committee polishing up effective fan service. (At least the emphasis is on “effective.”) For promising new narrative future, this latest film has nothing on last year’s The Force Awakens, with its immediately vibrant new personalities and their lingering unresolved promise: the simmering twisted villain Kylo Ren and fresh Force heroine Rey. But in staging Star Wars-ian action, Rogue One is the more complete experience, with a beginning, middle, and end, a style more efficiently beholden to what came before without strain, and a tone more willing to fit the enormity of the sacrifice in this conflict. It’s overly engineered to be a gleaming widget, fitting seamlessly into the larger franchise plan instead of springing from a singular revelation. But at least this is still a film that dreams a little bigger than most blockbuster product, playing in a hugely enjoyable and intricately imagined fantastical universe with some sense of the painful struggle to resisting brutal fascism.
This entry tells a big, confident tale of a dark corner of the galactic conflict we’d long known about but never seen: the process by which the Rebel Alliance discovered the existence of the super-weapon Death Star and stole plans that’ll end up given by Princess Leia to R2-D2 in the 1977 original’s opening moments. A self-contained – despite the endless references and offshoots into other areas of franchise canon – and admirably scruffy combat heist film – think The Guns of Navarone…In Space!! – it has a motley diverse crew of insurgents striking back against the forces of an evil empire. Better symbols than characters, the underwritten rebels make decent action figures. Through swooping, crashing, clamorous adventure sequences across all manner of terrain – deserts, villages, space stations, jungles, and tropical beaches – they fight. Reluctant rebel Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) joins a spy (Diego Luna), a comic-relief combat robot (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed), and two monk-like warriors (legendary Chinese action stars Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang bringing fun choreography). Their mission: contact her father (Mads Mikkelsen), an unhappy Imperial scientist who knows how to take the Death Star down.
This leads to varied action beats, like an ambush in a far-flung marketplace, a mountainous recon mission in a downpour, and a dizzying dogfight above a gleaming citadel. Along the way we learn a little more about the Rebellion than the earlier films had time to explore, with different factions of the Alliance debating battle plans and how to deal with extremists (like an under-used Forest Whitaker) in their midst. This mirrors the Empire’s side, as a commander (Ben Mendelsohn) fights off the life-and-death office politics of battle-station life. The script, pieced together by four credited contributors (Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, Gary Whitta, and John Knoll) juggles the movie’s hard-charging tough-minded warfare with hit-and-miss cameos, fun one-liners, smart retcons, terse exposition, and shorthand emotion. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air – and the strain sometimes shows, especially in the final product’s clearly tinkered dropped connections and foreshortened beats – but there’s fun to be had in the tactile look and crisp pace. There’s even a welcome commitment to feeling the losses, culminating in a staggering shot of good characters embracing certain doom knowing they’ve done all they could to win some small hope for their cause.
Although this is a side story, a spin-off, it’s identifiably Star Wars in its concern with family dramas writ large in galactic conflict and a sense of spirituality amidst tactics, plus gearhead love of spaceships taking off and landing and fantasy anthropologist appreciation of interesting creatures and beasties. (We get all the old familiar X-Wings and TIE Fighters and fish-heads and tentacle-haired beings, as well as slick new designs and goofy new aliens, like a massive Force-sensitive slug used as a lie-detector test.) Plus it has a key insight to style the cast like they’re actors from the 70’s – shaggy hair, groovy mustaches – playing the characters. Though cinematographer Greig Fraser shot gorgeous location photography and ILM filled it up with top-of-the-line digital fakery, it has the scuffed retro-future look of the original trilogy, like a modern re-creation of a 70’s vision. The much-ballyhooed lived-in universe aesthetic of Lucas’s original trilogy still draws visual appeal because it’s so densely designed. It proves there’s still a sense you could find a fascinating new story around every corner in every frame of this series. It also proves once more director Gareth Edwards (of 2014’s great Godzilla) is a master popcorn image-maker (despite many eye-popping shots featured in trailers ending up on the cutting room floor).
The movie works best when it has soaring spectacle clued into the enormity of its scale – a shuttle dwarfed by a planet behind it, the orbiting Death Star creating a solar eclipse, a city destroyed by laser-blast sending enormous shockwaves ripping up surrounding terrain in waves, and massive space structures colliding in the way everyone has played with the toys has dreamed about. But even in the moments when it’s merely workmanlike – or overworked franchise caretaking – it has some of the appeal the old Expanded Universe paperbacks did, varying in quality but consistently a drip, drip, drip of more, more, more for fans. It has all the bells and whistles, the immediately identifiable sound effects, music cues, and visual hallmarks of the series, even if it now has an over-polished committee’s recreation of what was once a singular personal pulp remix. The best thrills – a sensational final battle like something out of N64’s Rogue Squadron video game – feature dazzling effects and action better staged than Abrams’. It may still be imitation Lucas – or maybe imitation Kershner at this point – but it’s sturdy and entertaining nonetheless.