Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a movie I’ve been eagerly anticipating for a variety of reasons ever since it was announced. Reasons spanning from misplaced expectations (this movie is, alas, not about Rogue Squadron) to hope in the success of the so-called “standalone” films. This is a movie without a direct link to the Skywalker storyline of the saga films, with a new director, new writers, a new composer, and new characters. I was very excited for this movie leading up to opening day, but I was also very worried for it. Worried both that it would be so different that it would lose its essential Star Wars feel and that, because of that, it wouldn’t be successful at the box office.
I’m happy to say that that my worry was misplaced. Not only is Rogue One a great movie, it’s Star Wars unlike anything we’ve seen before on the big screen. Star Wars tends reach the upper bounds of space opera most of the time, which is certainly a big part of its appeal and why I fell in love with it as a kid. But in creating this connected universe between the movies, books, comics, and other material, there are plenty of other stories begging to be explored. Behind the heroes of destiny are the everyday heroes, the foundations of a complex rebellion, and a galaxy rich with history.
Rogue One starts slow, not really getting off the ground until Jyn and Cassian arrive on Jedha. It was an almost universal reaction that I saw from other fans. But just as universal was the feeling that it wasn’t as slow the second time through. This has a lot to do with not knowing the characters or what to expect from a standalone film. The whole film is full of differences from the cold open without a crawl, to the jumping around from planet to planet, to the cinematography itself. In my first viewing, I was full of apprehension, constantly yearning to see how the story was going to progress, how the film was going to turn out, whether it was going to be good or not. I knew what to expect the second time through, that apprehension disappeared and with it the feeling that the movie was slow. It certainly takes a while to get to the action, but there is an intentional tension that builds until it explodes (literally) on Jedha. This parallels the political climate of the galaxy at large and is an excellent way to begin the film.
One of the biggest differences in this film was a score by a composer other than John Williams. It was a tight spot for Michael Giacchino to be in, trying to take over for a legend like Williams. It was even worse when the composer originally selected for the job to dropped out, leaving just four and a half weeks to put together an original score for the biggest movie of the year. What Giacchino managed to accomplish in that short amount of time is impressive, but it isn’t on the same level as Williams. The score is at its best when it’s bombastic, sweeping, or swelling with emotion. Most of the quieter moments are lost to the background. Even after listening to the soundtrack multiple times, nothing stands out as a defining theme like The Imperial March, Duel of the Fates, or Rey’s Theme did. However, character themes weren’t completely necessary since they won’t be needed to connect the films of a trilogy. And if there’s any Star Wars movie that didn’t need a legendary score, it’s Rogue One. There was plenty going on in the film so the score never needed to be front and center. It was an excellent supplement if only a good standalone work.
The characters as a whole were excellent. The ensemble cast of protagonists made it possible to explore different aspects of the galaxy. The range of characters injected more moral ambiguity into a franchise that has always been about good versus evil. There’s no mistaking the fact that the Empire is evil, giant death lasers will do that for your image, but we get to see how the Rebel Alliance isn’t all sunshine and rainbows either. Characters like Cassian Andor, who murders an informant right at the beginning of the movie because they would slow him down, and Baze Malbus, who clearly has no issue gunning down large numbers of Imperials give an edge to the Rebellion that has been missing. Other characters like Saw Gerrera showed that the rebels weren’t one cohesive unit and that some were considered too extreme to be part of the Alliance.
The strength of the ensemble cast was also one of the movie’s biggest weaknesses at times because there were too many to focus on. The film tried to give most of them an arc over the course of a two hour film with varying success. No character was harmed more by this than the main character Jyn Erso. I enjoyed Jyn, especially on subsequent viewings, but her shift from cold and fiercely independent to inspirational leader of rebellion was the most abrupt change of the main cast. The part that stands out the most is when she is addressing the Alliance council after returning from Eadu. Her speech is full of hope and light but I expected more fire and determination. It was a dramatic shift from the angry Jyn we watched confront Cassian minutes before. There has been talk about the reshoots on this movie and rumor has it that some were done to make Jyn more relatable. I don’t know to what extent that’s true, but it certainly felt like the council scene was trying to accomplish that. Felicity Jones was great as Jyn and she played both versions very well. But I would like to see the version of the movie with angry Jyn, angry at the Empire for killing her family, for destroying her life, for murdering a city full of innocent people. That sounds relatable to me.
Out of the other protagonists, Bodhi Rook had the best arc and was the most well-acted. Riz Ahmed brought a lot of subtlety to the character, which is a rarity in Star Wars. Outside of Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of Palpatine in the prequels, there isn’t anybody better. Ahmed’s body language, especially his facial expressions, added a lot of depth to Bodhi. The scene where he is first introduced to Saw Gerrera is a great example of this. His eye twitches ever so slightly in response to seeing Saw, which is an impressive bit of acting. Bodhi’s arc from nervous defector to digging down and finding a moment of bravery was the most satisfying of the film. Throughout the film, he represents the everyday hero. He is a normal person with a normal job caught up in a bad system. He wants to do the right thing but isn’t sure how to do it. But when the moment presents itself, he seizes it and helps save the galaxy.
Other than Bodhi, the character that I connected with the most was the one without much of an arc, Chirrut Îmwe. I was excited about Donnie Yen being in a Star Wars movie because of his martial arts prowess (seriously, go watch Ip Man), but I did not expect him to be the soul of the movie. Chirrut not only provides a moral center to the ragtag group of rebels; he also keeps the movie from becoming too grounded in reality. In a film with no Jedi, and which could have easily eliminated any mention of the Force entirely, we learned more about the mystical energy than in any film so far. As a fan, it was cool to see different aspects of the Force explored and knowing there were people dedicated to the Force outside of the Jedi and Sith. But more importantly, Chirrut shows us there is strength in belief. There will surely be arguments about how much of a “Force user” Chirrut really is but there’s no doubt that his humble confidence allows him to accomplish great things.
With regard to the villains (assuming you’re not an Imperial sympathizer), Director Orson Krennic was a refreshing change from the big bad evils of the past. He has the aspiration and arrogance befitting an Imperial officer but is best described as successfully incompetent. Throughout the film, Krennic is constantly wading into the deep end before he is ready, always one step further ahead in his mind than he is in reality. This behavior is explored more (along with his relationship with Galen Erso) in the excellent Catalyst by James Luceno. And while it was fun to watch Krennic’s plans constantly foiled by the rebels, it was his internal competition with Tarkin that was the real show.
John Knoll and the rest of the dark wizards at Industrial Light & Magic pulled off some real magic by having Tarkin on screen again. It wasn’t perfect, probably 95%, but animated Peter Cushing stole every scene he was in. His continual outmaneuvering of Krennic highlights just how far out of his league the director is. Tarkin’s cool, unwavering, aristocratic voice contrasts sharply with Krennic’s barely hidden anger and forced accent (whether intentional or not due to Mendelsohn’s Australian accent). It was the perfect way to show more of the internal structure of the Empire and to show how infighting likely leads to its collapse.
But the cast, as excellent as it was, was my biggest issue with Rogue One, specifically in regards to gender diversity. Star Wars has long been a franchise dominated by male characters and very little has changed with this movie. In an ensemble cast of six protagonists, there were five males. (Yes, one was a droid but it was voiced by Alan Tudyk). Sure Jyn was the main character, but that doesn’t make up for the fact she was the only woman on screen for most of the movie. The fact that it was an ensemble cast and screen time was split more evenly between the characters makes it even worse. It’s a shame because Rogue One was good in terms of racial diversity in the main cast.
But the issue goes well beyond the main cast. There are almost no women in this film. This is especially evident in the Imperial ranks. Star Wars, through Del Rey and Marvel, has seen a surge of female officers and soldiers in the Empire recently. Ciena Ree from Lost Stars and Rae Sloane from a multitude of books are two notable examples. Even in film, The Force Awakens had Captain Phasma, female stormtroopers, and female naval officers throughout the First Order. To see a room full of white, male Imperial officers was jarring considering this recent development. I’m sure the decision was intentional, to maintain continuity with A New Hope and show the Empire as a discriminatory group. But the Empire doesn’t need to be rooted in our own prejudices (the anti-alien bias is enough of a metaphor for that). It’s about normal, everyday people being pulled into committing evil or ignoring evil. Women and people of color are normal, everyday people. This is unacceptable and absolutely must change in future Star Wars films. On screen representation is far more important than lazy metaphors.
It’s difficult to reconcile this one glaring negative with the fact that I adore this film. Because other than the lack of women, it’s everything I wanted from a Star Wars standalone. Gareth Edwards immersed himself in the world of Star Wars and it shows. It’s why I have had such a hard time focusing on the film as a work of art to review. At no point watching the movie did I think, “this is a really good Star Wars movie.” I was too caught up in the moment. Too mesmerized by how natural everything looked and felt. And for the last thirty minutes or so, too overwhelmed by what might as well have been actual war footage from the Galaxy Far, Far Away. The Battle of Scarif was like something I dreamed about as a kid. All of the detailed combat, both in space and on the ground was like something ripped from the Expanded Universe, like a naval engagement from the Thrawn Trilogy. But it never got lost in itself. It was never combat for the sake of combat. There were stakes, big stakes, and big emotion. The end of this film hit me harder than any Star Wars has before, even more than Han Solo’s death. This film made me care about six characters I had no prior knowledge of in the span of two hours. And I think it’s ultimately because, as a good friend of mine pointed out, it’s not a movie about hope. It’s a movie about sacrifice. About normal, everyday people who believe in doing what’s right. The kind of people willing to give everything for just the slightest chance at a better future. The kind of people whose stories often go untold. Luckily for us, we get to see the heroism of Rogue One.