Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is really good. Relax – you’re going to enjoy it. In fact, the movie is so successful that after a very quick-paced two hours and 13 minutes, I found myself wishing the studio and the filmmakers had doubled-down on the movie’s best elements: strong performances, rich supporting characters, a lean-by-Star-Wars-standards tale about gritty guerilla soldiers resisting an evil empire, plus – Star Wars! Unfortunately, Rogue One doesn’t go rogue enough – it clings too closely to the core Star Wars saga and it feels like a real good movie that might have been an even deeper and more important film.
Of course the massive popularity of the Star Wars franchise means countless universes to quantify and commodify, and it makes sense to create spin-off films to meet the endless appetites of every armchair Jedi on the planet Earth. But, Rogue One tells how the rebels got the plans for the Death Star, setting up the story arc of the original Star Wars film. It’s all a bit too cozy for a movie that might have been much more daring were it not so directly connected to a revered, hallowed cash cow. The movie’s production was also spotlit in the press with rumors of extensive reshoots. The reshoots happened, but it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to parse what “the original” film looked like. This final version of Rogue is pretty seamless aside from some barely offensive moments of dumb-it-down exposition. It’s pretty clear that this first foray away from the main Star Wars saga was never meant to wander too far from Tatooine, but it’s an absolute affirmation that Star Wars spinoff films can and will stand on their own.
Rogue One finds Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) captured by the Rebel Alliance and forced into a plan to help the rebels locate the man who raised her – a Clone War veteran turned extremist rebel, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Gerrera rescued Jyn as a child after her family was attacked in connection to her father’s work as a weapons engineer for the Galactic Empire. In what might be the most morally ambiguous Star Wars film, Rogue’s characters and their actions and motivations aren’t always what they seem, and one of the film’s great strengths is its evocation of the personal fog of war that falls over the eyes of every soldier who’s ever done the worst of things with the best of intentions. By the third act we’re watching a kickass commando film as a rag-tag band of rebels literally storm a tower beneath an expansive dogfight between graceful, gliding X-wings and hissing Tie Fighters.
By its frantic finale Rogue feels like it’s nearly about to spill directly into the original Star Wars film, and the literal handing-off of the Death Star plans from one falling rebel soldier to another reminds us how vulnerable armed revolutions and priceless film franchises might seem to be from moment to moment.
The new characters here are all solid: Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor is a Rebel Alliance Intelligence Officer whose hard exterior covers the pain of his childhood as a soldier. Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO is a smartass like C-3PO, but with the fighting chops of a former imperial enforcer droid. My favorite new character is Donnie Yen’s Chirrut îmwei, who’s a nod to the countless blind masters we find in martial arts and samurai cinema. Yen gets to show off his cinematic kung fu while spouting aphorisms about an all-but-forgotten cosmology based on something called The Force. Jyn Erso is the latest Star Wars heroine who’s both gorgeous and gung ho, and one of the best things about this screenplay is that Jyn and Cassian’s attraction is never allowed to blossom into anything more than a few knowing looks as they blast their way through a suicide mission to transmit the Death Star plans to the Alliance.
Rogue One is ultimately a pretty bleak film about sacrifice and the meaning that might be found in losing everything. In some ways, this is the story of the countless other pilots, rebels and soldiers we’ve seen sabered, blasted and exploded at the edges of the frames of the other core Star Wars films while the protagonists survived for the medal ceremony. Rogue One is a movie about the heroes who aren’t remembered, but I’m having a hard time forgetting them.
Rogue One is playing locally in wide release.