It can be difficult to see through the Star Wars hype enough to objectively evaluate a new addition to the franchise. Months of meticulously breaking down every trailer, rumor, and cast interview finally culminates in seeing the finished product, leaving you with a tall order. That said, there’s a lot to unpack for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, so we’ll just dive right in and cut to the chase: This is unlike any Star Wars movie you’ve ever seen.
The thing that immediately stands out is that this is a true war movie in every sense of the term. Whereas the other films in the saga used war as a backdrop for Skywalker family drama and in-depth character portraits, Rogue One puts it right at the forefront, warts and all. War isn’t pretty, and despite the movie’s PG-13 rating, it isn’t scared to revel in that fact. Basically, it’s Band of Brothers set in a galaxy far, far away.
It’s exactly that Band of Brothers-esque appeal that sets Rogue One apart too. We see the characters in this movie in brief snapshots, each with their own reason for fighting, and each willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. We have Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose whole life has been destroyed after she was caught in the middle of the conflict between the Empire and Rebels. Recruiting Jyn, is Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a ruthless, damaged Rebel officer who was forged in the crucible of war.
The story beyond that gradually brings the rest of the team into the fold, from defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), to Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a skeptic and an optimist whose competing world views play off each other wonderfully. Offering just enough humor to keep things honest is K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a repurposed Imperial security droid that consistently steals virtually every scene he’s in.
As our team comes together, we start to see a movie unafraid to cast the classic Star Wars story in a new light. The traditional narrative has always been simple: The Empire is bad, and the Rebels are unequivocally good. In reality, war is rarely ever that black and white, and Rogue One makes a point to remind us of that at every turn. What we see isn’t the morally perfect Rebellion from the original trilogy (or the Star Wars Rebels animated series). Instead, we see a group of insurgents willing to inflict an unsettling amount of collateral damage in order to accomplish their greater goals.
Some of Rogue One‘s greatest strengths as a war movie also amount to a few of its more glaring weaknesses. It’s exciting to finally get a standalone story designed to bring together our characters for a one-off adventure, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that we never quite get enough time with any of them to really understand them on a deeper level. By the time we reach the climactic third act, we’ve already jumped around six separate locales, all while introducing a handful of brand new characters who barely get enough individual screen time to firmly establish an emotional link to us as an audience. The result is a series of moments where you’re practically begging the film to stop and smell the roses, if not for at least a minute or two.
You could argue that the thinner characters were designed to serve the larger purpose: To show us the untold story of the Rebellion’s grunts in the trenches. By definition, they’re not meant to feel as rich and fleshed-out as your Luke Skywalkers or Han Solos. Rather, they’re here to show us that the heroes of the Rebellion weren’t all legendary Jedi and daring generals. Sure, we could have done with some slower moments to sit down and absorb our surroundings, but Rogue One only had one movie to tell its story, and that makes it tough to blame it for a sense of thematic urgency.
It’s impossible to judge a Star Wars movie without observing how it operates within the larger context of films. That makes “Is it better than The Empire Strikes Back?” the foremost question on everyone’s mind. The thing is, that’s very much a square peg/round hole sort of way to evaluate Rogue One. This isn’t a film that had the luxury of stretching out over a trilogy, and it’s something that at times works against it, but still mostly works as a proof of concept.
That all means we’re left to figure out how Rogue One stands up as a standalone narrative. While frenetically paced, there’s no denying that director Gareth Edwards has delivered a final product that expertly balances fan service with a new kind of Star Wars story. Simply put, if this is what we can expect from Lucasfilm’s Anthology series moving forward, then you can color us impressed in almost every way.
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