If we were to go back to eight years ago, you could have asked me if there would ever be a day where audiences would see a new Star Wars film every year. I would have laughed at you and said that Lucas was keen to sit atop his throne, never to relenquish the reigns of his own house to someone else.
Of course, we all would be wrong and would have never seen Disney buying out Lucasfilm, turning the studio into its own kingdom, allowing longtime Steven Spielberg collaborator Kathleen Kennedy to bring the Star Wars franchise back to life. But here we are. It’s 2016 and we’re just a year removed from The Force Awakens, a juggernaut blockbuster that found J.J. Abrams resurrecting a long-dormant story and infusing new life into characters we had only continued to read about in novels. However, rather than just continue the stories of old, Kennedy also wanted to make standalone films. The first offering? Tackling the plot to steal the plans to the Death Star. Like any other fan out there, I too was one that was suspicious of the notion. Audiences were already foaming at the mouth for more of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie. Stealing the Death Star plans was in a throwaway one-liner from A New Hope, no afterthought given to the who, what, when, where, why, or even how. Yet, here we are. Rogue One has hit theaters – and I’m a ten year old boy all over again, a metal bucket of popcorn on my lap and my undivided attention on the screen ahead of me.
I tip my cap to director Gareth Edwards, who previously reintroduced the world to Godzilla just two short years ago. In fact, if you glance at his scant resume you’ll find that Rogue One is only his second major Hollywood film on record. He’s still a very young and hungry creator, waxing nostalgic over the films that got him excited as a child, dreaming of worlds larger than our own inhabited by living, breathing realistic characters that leapt off the pages and resonated long after the credits roll. While Godzilla was a very different sort of monster tale (with the film focusing more on the human element versus the larger-than-life battle raging between Godzilla and the MUTO), the seeds were planted.
By God, just look what happens when a director with a vision makes his dream project. Not only does Rogue One exceeds my wildest dreams and expectations – this could be the best Star Wars film since Empire Strikes Back.
Rogue One is far from the saga of good versus evil that George Lucas envisioned way back when filming on A New Hope began in March 1976. The stories we’ve become so fond of, rallying around our televisions with eyes just as wide as they were the first time we watched each movie, were simplistic in the fact you had the Rebellion fighting to dash the threat of the Galactic Empire. (I’m going to omit the prequel trilogy from all this because, honestly, there’s only one trilogy that even matters.) However, with the first stand-alone film in Star Wars history, the narrative is a total tonal shift away from what we’re used to ingesting. We’re not rooting for good to quash evil. Instead, we’re left breathless as a very struggling Rebellion, still unsure if their goal is even attainable, is losing a war it may never seemingly win unless a line in the sand is drawn.
Based on a story idea by Gary Whitta (The Book Of Eli) and John Knoll (a long-time visual effects director for Industrial Light & Magic), screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy deliver a script unlike any Star Wars movie we’ve ever witnessed before. Weitz is more known of his comedic work with brother Paul on the American Pie films, whilst Tony Gilroy has been the godfather to the Jason Bourne movies. Their talents combined have created a script that touches on real-world scenarios (though set in a galaxy far, far away) with the right amount of nostalgia while creating a cast of characters all with very real flaws, casting the same doubts you and I do in daily life. The saga, a first in Star Wars (as the plot is firmly rooted as one set of events and unfolds fast across a span of a couple of days), fits like a corner piece in a large puzzle, finally answering questions that were throwaway lines decades ago. The answers finally make more sense in the larger plot that we can discuss ad nausea among our first. The usual cliches are nowhere to be found, though at times the pacing halts to a slow crawl to allow audiences to get inside our heroes’ heads as they search for what is right and just. Weitz and Gilroy’s script won’t win any awards but their tale will surely evoke discussions for a long time about the consequences of the Rebellion’s goal.
Oh, and lest I mention, this is the first Star Wars movies lacking a John Williams score. (Don’t worry – the master will return for Episode VIII next December.) Instead, and in a way passing the baton I suppose, we are treated to John Williams of today at the helm of soundtracks – Michael Giacchino, longtime collaborator with J.J. Abrams. Though some of his cues hearken back to Williams’ cues of the original trilogy (as more a homage and continuation of the themes), Giacchino instead weaves his own soulful and bombastic symphonic masterpiece, delivering arguably the best score of his career, with the rise of chords and the fall of strings, a chorus of haunting voices in the background driving the action forward. A day will come when Giacchino is given the keys to the kingdom. While that day has yet to arrive, Giacchino delivers yet again, and this time in a score written and delivered in four weeks. You read that right. Four weeks.
The amount of attention given to the detail in Rogue One is a demonstration of the labor of love that Gareth Edwards strove to create. At every little corner is the type of old-school film-making that made the original trilogy stand out. While special effects were at the forefront of the technological drive, Lucas’ desire to paint a bigger picture by utilizing old-school film-making is what ultimately made Episodes IV, V, and VI such classics. The same techniques too are used in striking detail, with the amazing assistance of Industrial Light & Magic. The scenes set on Yavin IV use life-size cardboard cut-outs of X-Wings and Y-Wings – the same exact technique Lucas implemented on A New Hope. Scenes inside of ships had screens outside the windows, rather than using CG landscapes, to give both the cast and viewers feel like the action is unfolding in front of them. Extensive on-location shooting was completed all across the world, from Iceland to Jordan, Maldives to the United Kingdom, and back to Pinewood Studios for painfully articulate reconstructions of familiar sets, most notably the Death Star set (in such acute detail the scenes almost feel ripped direct from the 1977 original). Hell, even models make a very warm and welcome return to the franchise, at times feeling like another cheapened ILM effect but completed with such minute detail every little piece shines on the screen. (Case in point – look at the Star Destroyers.)
This kind of film-making has been long absent in cinemas, replaced with the type of big-budget theatrics that are quickly shot in front of green screens and supplanted with CG heroics during post-production. You have to give Gareth Edwards and his team credit. This is no easy task to use the skills of yesteryear to bring a blockbuster together but, with the right amount of dedication and determination, the still-hungry director pulled all of this together seamlessly, bringing an untold tale to life and immersing audiences into a world (and story) they didn’t think they’d welcome into their hearts.
If not for the cast, then maybe Rogue One couldn’t have been the complete package. Though the crux of the plot centers on Jyn Erso (a very bitter Felicity Jones looking to find meaning in her cold lonesome life) and Captain Cassain Andor (a weary Diego Luna unsure of his spy hi-jinks are enough to keep the Rebellion going), really the ensemble brought together make the story come to life. Though Erso’s aim is to locate the location of her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), forced from her life years earlier to work on the Death Star, she wants closure. She wants what’s needed to find a purpose, a reason to keep going, rather than drift across the galaxy as the bitter war-weary solider she’s evolved into. Andor believes in the cause of the Rebellion and questions the motives of his superiors on the council, growing fatigued from being a lap dog rather than leading an offensive. Along the duo’s path to finding Galen Erso they run into two men formerly of the Kyber Temples on the arid planet of Jetta, a blind Force-motivated warrior Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Aided by pilot/Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the team of unsung heroes band together to seek Jyn’s father and help the Rebellion deliver a crippling blow to the Galactic Empire.
Though so many actors and actresses shine throughout the 134-minute run-time, truly the spotlight is stolen from unlikely sources. Donnie Yen, a longtime personal favorite of mine from his work in Chinese martial arts films like Legend Of Chen Zhen and Ip-Man, is a believer in the Force, though he lacks sight. His belief shines on amidst the darkness forever surrounding him, under the pacifistic assertion that when an individual has faith in the Force, the Force in turn acts as a guide and will make you do the very things you doubt you can accomplish. (A repeated line said by Yen may become a new zen-like saying for fans – “I am one with the Force, and the Force is one with me.”) Tudyk’s K-2SO is the comic relief of Rogue One (much akin to Wash on Firefly), a droid whose reprogramming by the Rebellion brings his every thought to life, oft times with such impeccable and bad timing the grit of the film is forgotten for several brief moments. Ben Mendelsohn is a very human but very diabolical Director Orson Krennic, a fiendish Imperial officer who prides himself on the Death Star and seeks to ensure the monstrosity he’s brought forth is not taken from his hands. But of all the protagonists embedded in Rogue One‘s plot (yes – even the villains are organic enough to warrant consideration as empathetic characters), I found myself taking a liking most to Captain Andor. Generally a man who does what is required of him, as the film progresses the question of doing what you have faith in as opposed to what you’re ordered to complete comes to light, making him a more sympathetic character than when we first meet him in opening minutes, a blunt instrument who completes tasks without asking any questions.
Of course, there are very many surprises in store for you. Since I’m not your traditional reviewer – and as always – I’m not going to spoil anything. There are many winks, nods, and surprises in store for you. While it’s no secret Darth Vader is very much part of Rogue One‘s plot, no, he’s not an eyesore not a distraction from the story. His inclusion is integral to the development of Director Krennic and the path he’s set as he envisions his command of the Death Star as a grand prize for the Emperor, not just another project simply delivered with satisfaction. No, there isn’t an opening crawl – and I’m all for the idea of abandoning the crawl for the standalone tales, to make these solo stories stick out from the rest of the ongoing saga. Blink-or-you-miss-them moments are abound, with characters you may remember to even painstaking shot-for-shot homages to the original trilogy that made me beam like a child. I even occasionally looked around the theater at those key moments, witnessing adults who once themselves were children in between 1977 and 1983, the same affectionate looks plastered on their faces as well.
Also, once again, if you felt relieved that the marketing for The Force Awakens revealed absolutely nothing about the plot, then you’ll be even more pleased with Rogue One. Scenes from the trailers are omitted, also feeling as if their existence was to merely garner buzz prior to the film’s release. Once again Lucasfilm opts for misdirection to keep audiences worldwide keenly intrigued but never clued in to what the actual plot is for our heroes. We all knew that the plot was central to capturing the schematics for the Death Star. We knew that Jyn Erso’s father was working with the Empire to bring life to the Death Star, the freakish space station akin to Frankenstein’s monster. But you will be relieved to discover a more emotive core to the storytelling. For once, the story has a complexity with real consequences should they fail.
Growing up, I fell in love with the elementary storytelling of the original trilogy. You had a trio of heroes just looking to defeat the Empire. Along the way, Luke Skywalker discovered his destiny whilst Leia and Han began enamored with each other’s affections. Rogue One is a different beast. If the episodes from Lucas and Abrams were more soap operatic, then this standalone tale is about the unsung heroes, the men and women who opt to stand for what they believe in to be right. They’ve grown up under the thumb of the Empire and, since speaking out against the Empire is forbidden and treasonous, these individuals strike back in other ways. They are spies. Saboteurs. Grunts. They take the fight to the Empire daily knowing that their next morning could be their last. But they refuse to accept that their existence should be spent standing with the crowd when their opinions differ from everyone else. They fight because someone has to. Death is just a neighbor waiting to carry them onto the next life, the Force acting as a guide to keep their hopes alive, their hearts beating, their resolve absolute.
I truly would liken Rogue One to one of my all-time favorite films, and it’s an Oscar winner – but it’d be Saving Private Ryan. As Andor says to a small group of Rebels before an incursion, “Make ten men feel like a hundred.” As the saying goes, war is hell. There is no guarantee of victory without putting up a fight, fighting for what you stand for, for what you believe in at the end of the day. The forces you combat may outnumber you but, with ambition and diligence, you can stand up against anything that challenges your idealogies. To stand up for what you deem right includes the idealogy that sacrifice is sometimes the end-all, be-all. The Rebels always felt were the underdogs, their backs against the wall, the Empire outnumbering them by the thousands when they were merely hundreds deep in unity. If you were to switch the setting to the 1940’s, with a small band of Allied forces matching wits with the Axis powers, then you’d have the exact grit that Rogue One not only strives for but manages to achieve.
The standalone tale isn’t a wholly pleasant experience at times. The story is fraught with raw emotion, dark thematic elements, and moments of helplessness. Yet, with a pulse-pounding third act that doesn’t let up until the credit roll, Rogue One manages to immerse your head and heart for these characters. They’re lost souls looking to find their peace, to justify that they have a purpose and a meaning, even through sacrifice if necessary. They want to be one with the Force, and the Force wants to be one with them. And through their resolve, their aim takes us on an unforgettable journey that is satisfying, leading us directly into a story we all know and love with twists and turns abound, making the characters ask the hard questions we ourselves struggle to answer oft times. Rogue One might be the first time that Lucasfilm wanders off into new storytelling territory but the finished film is a true labor of love, a throwback to the productions of yesteryear when CG wasn’t king and the focus was on the heroes, not the spectacle. Gareth Edwards has proven himself to be just as much a dreamer as George Lucas was in 1977 – and, dare I say it, manages to deliver a film that will go down as the best Star Wars installment in 36 years. Don’t just see Rogue One once and be done. See it twice. Three times. And just let yourself be washed away in one of the best Lucasfilm blockbusters in a very long time, even outshining The Force Awakens at times.
Reber’s Rating – 95/100
(Oh, and for the record, I’m officially ranking Rogue One as the third best of the Star Wars saga – only behind Empire Strikes Back at the top with A New Hope in second. Though, after a repeat viewing this weekend, that very well may change.)