This article will discuss aspects of Star Wars: Rogue One that are dependent on seeing the movie. For maximum discourse potential, we recommend seeing the movie before reading this article.
Excitement and apprehension built for months preceding the release of the first official Star Wars spin-off movie, Rogue One. What could we expect from a new story taking place in between the established episodes, especially one between the first two trilogies? Could a Star Wars movie without a Skywalker or Jedi be entertaining and successful? Would casual audiences really care about a story to which they already know the ultimate ending?
Personally, I loved Rogue One. I thought it satisfied all the Star Wars elements while establishing its own war movie identity. The lack of true Jedi wasn’t a problem, and the removal of the Force as an easy out for any scenario heightened the tension. As such this movie should more easily speak to us mere mortals. There are several layers for viewers to sift through during repeat viewings and discussions. Yet in the end it’s still an entertaining action movie anyone could enjoy.
In short, it’s no Jedi mind trick that Rogue One is the Star Wars movie you’re looking for.
A New Hope
First and foremost, Rogue One should eliminate any fear that these “Star Wars Story” movies won’t measure up to the main episodes. Some people worried that Disney releasing a new Star Wars movie annually would dilute the brand. And while it is quite a change from the trilogy every couple decades pace of the George Lucas days, if the future films measure up to Rogue One then every movie fan is in for a treat. The closest parallel in today’s market is Disney’s other film franchise property, the Marvel movies. We’re only two films into the new generation of Star Wars movies, so time will have to tell how well future films perform.
From the cold opening Rogue One is a different type of Star Wars movie. After the Lucasfilm logo fades and the standard introduction “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” appears, you can almost feel the audience tensing for the usual opening fanfare with the Star Wars logo followed by the opening crawl. Surprise! No fanfare, no logo, no crawl. We’re just tossed into open space. But if you watch that canvas of empty space, you notice it appears the audience is actually viewing the crawl from below and behind. If true, that’s a nifty metaphor for a movie between the episodes. And it’s subtle enough not to feel tacky or overblown. I could even be imagining it. Regardless, I was initially taken aback by the different opening sequence, but in a way that’s a good thing. Star Wars runs the risk of becoming rote with too many movies, as evidenced by the criticism of Episode VII being too much of a retread of Episode IV.
One especially salient aspect of Rogue One is the stark contrast between the members of the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. The Empire has always been overt in its anti-alien stance. Up until characters like Captain Phasma and Finn in Episode VII, the Imperial human resources department appeared to pass over females and non-whites as well. And don’t forget the gleaming white armor of the Stormtroopers and hulls of the star destroyers. It’s not very hard to see the Third Reich references throughout the Empire.
But the Rebels weren’t all that better in the original trilogy, at least in terms of its human members. Sure, Princess Leia and Mon Mothma were women in power, and Lando was a black man who took out the second Death Star. But it felt like the rest of the Rebel Alliance were white guys. Compare that to the motley crew that go after the plans for the Death Star:
- Female lead: Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a rogue maverick detained by the Empire.
- Mexican actor: Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, a Rebel Alliance Intelligence officer.
- Chinese actor: Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior who believes in the Force.
- Danish actor: Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso, Jyn’s father and a research scientist.
- British Pakistani actor: Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, a former Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebels.
- Chinese film actor, screenwriter, and director: Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, a Rebel warrior, mercenary and partner of Chirrut Îmwe.
- Black actor: Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera, a veteran of the Clone Wars.
This group of Rebels, composed of minorities, speaks volumes in the aftermath of the 2016 United States presidential election and the controversy around Donald Trump, his staff, and his supporters. One can almost imagine Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military, taking to the interstellar equivalent of Twitter to vent his frustration over Grand Moff Tarkin and losing credit for his part in crafting the Death Star. Then to be taken out by a bunch of foreign men led by the woman is the final turn of the knife.
The Empire Strikes Back
Throughout the first six Star Wars episodes movie goers have glimpsed the Empire’s military might. Movie goers witnessed the the Death Star’s destruction of Alderaan to coerce information from Princess Leia in Episode IV. In Episode III we watched the destruction of the Jedi Order by Palpatine’s infamous Order 66. The Battle of Hoth in Episode V introduced AT-ATs. But Rogue One is the first time we truly see the full might of the Empire deployed at once. As the Rebels attempt to steal the Death Star schematics, the battle rages on the ground and in the air of Scarif. Stormtroopers of multiple stripes attack while AT-ATs lumber across the beach. Legions of TIE fighters pour out of gleaming star destroyers to combat the Rebel fleet. And unlike previous space battles depicted in the prequel trilogy, the action is easy to follow and not simply focused on the one or two star Jedi pilots. It almost feels like you’re watching the Battle of Yavin all over again (which, of course, you literally are) in the most awesome way imaginable.
And the battles felt and looked like the best Battlefront game footage ever.
Return of the Jedi
I am one with the Force, the Force is with me
Chirrut Îmwe’s martial arts prowess offers a great counterpoint to all the awesome space battles and blaster shoot-outs in Rogue One. The spectacle of a blind warrior deftly dodging blaster fire while wielding a simple staff will likely top even the great duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon, and Obi-Wan. It’s amazing that the one of the best science fiction movies of the year also provides some of the best martial arts choerography I’ve personally seen in years. I doubt we’ll see this kind of action again in Star Wars, though, but that makes Donnie Yen’s performance all the more special. Instead we’ll have to settle for scenes like FN-2199 versus FN-2187.
And in between all the spirituality and Wing Chun, Chirrut delivers some of the funniest lines. Who didn’t laugh at “Are you kidding me? I’m blind.”
The Phantom Menace
All of that is not to say Rogue One is a perfect cinema experience. A few bothersome plot elements and some specific special effects drag down the movie just a bit.
For starters, the pilot Bodhi regained full use of his mind awfully quick when the plot needed it. When we first see Bodhi after his interrogation at the tentacles of Saw’s Lovecraftian creature, he appears almost catatonic. Saw mentions one of the effects of the creature’s power is losing one’s mind. Yet by the time Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi reach their escape ship the turncoat Imperial appears to regained his mental faculties. Obviously the character is much more interesting this way but it did feel a little too conveniently timed.
Several action movie cliches sneak in as well. The dilating vent door snapping open and closed at the top of the data archives felt extremely contrived. What possible purpose is there to such a contraption? Then at a few key moments, all Imperial troopers simply disappear. One moment they’re blasting with abandon, the next they’re laying low to let the Rebels share poignant moments. Maybe those blasters actually need to be reloaded?
Another small nitpick was the character name Saw. The guys sitting next to me in the theater misheard it as Saul. I probably only knew it was Saw because I had read the prequel novel Catalyst. But Saw, like Jyn and Has (a pilot from Catalyst that doesn’t appear in Rogue One), continues the tradition of three letter Star Wars names started by Han Solo and continued through Rey in Episode VII.
One of the biggest special effects in Rogue One is the portrayal of Grand Moff Tarkin and Leia Organa, who are physically played by Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila, respectively, with digital likenesses of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher overlaid on the physical actors. While the technology used for Tarkin is some of the best of its kind, it’s still just jarring enough to seem unnatural. The computer graphics almost manage to escape the uncanny valley, but unless you clear that gap entirely it will always feel off to audiences. Leia felt more natural, but then again she was only on screen for a handful of seconds and wasn’t in frame with other real humans. If Disney plans to make more movies set in the time period between Episodes III and IV, though, it would seem prudent to just cast a new actor for the role of Tarkin and be done with it. Now the studio has painted itself into a corner of always using this digital technique any time the prominent Governor is needed, which given the timeline should be fairly often. It would be a shame if they don’t revisit this time period since it is one of the most fertile grounds for connective stories with impact.
Attack of the Clones
Some critics don’t like how much these new Star Wars movies rely on nostalgia from the original trilogy. To me, that’s a credit to the quality of those movies and a neat way to link the new with the old. Besides, so much of geek culture is self-referential, why can’t Star Wars partake? Browncoats went crazy with glee every time Nathan Fillion did anything related to Firefly on the show Castle. So let Star Wars fans revel in some in jokes.
Like Jyn bumping into Ponda Baba and Colonel Evazan, the disfigured guy and his alien friend who bump into Luke at the Mos Eisley cantina and utter the infamous line, “He doesn’t like you, I don’t like you”. Or the container of blue milk prominently displayed on the Ersos’ kitchen counter just minutes into the movie. And don’t forget the Death Star firing sequence being redone shot for shot, and even repeated for good measure. All of these have been referenced and parodied numerous times in other works. It’s basically a way for Star Wars to dip into our contemporary real world pop culture without breaking the continuity of the Star Wars reality. It’s art imitating life imitating art, like M.C. Escher wielding a lightsaber.
For even more Easter eggs and other hidden goodies, Polygon has a nice article you should check out.
Then there’s the returning cast members. Wikipedia’s cast entry for Rogue One contains this blitz of role reprisals across the entire film:
Jimmy Smits, Genevieve O’Reilly, and Anthony Daniels reprise their roles from previous films as Bail Organa, Mon Mothma, and C-3PO, respectively.James Earl Jones also reprises his role from previous films as the voice of Darth Vader, who is physically portrayed by Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous. Grand Moff Tarkin and Leia Organa are physically played by Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila, respectively, with digital likenesses of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher used in the portrayal. Angus MacInnes and Drewe Henley are featured in their roles as Gold Leader Dutch Vander and Red Leader Garven Dreis, respectively, via unused archival footage from A New Hope. David Ankrum, who voiced Wedge Antillies in A New Hope, reprises his role in a vocal cameo. Ian McElhinney and Michael Smiley play General Jan Dodonna and Dr. Evazan respectively. Warwick Davis plays Weeteef Cyubee, a member of Saw Gerrera’s Partisans.
Revenge of the Sith
The ending action sequence is another astounding moment that only the best Star Wars movie can pull off. Watching Darth Vader wade through the Rebels as they run a relay race with the Death Star plans finally presents the Sith Lord uncorking all his battle powers. He even makes the effortless deflection of blaster bolts, which we’ve seen many times by this point in other movies and shows, seem special. The only nit to pick here is why Vader didn’t simply use the Force to yank the data disk from the Rebels’ hands. It’s easy to overlook that detail, though, and simply enjoy the spectacle of Darth Vader kicking some Rebel ass.
One lesson future Star Wars movies should learn from Rogue One’s use of Darth Vader is not to overdo it. Vader was only in a couple scenes. Arguably his meeting with Krennic was extraneous. But his inclusion in the climatic chase and battle dovetails perfectly with the ending of Rogue One moving directly into the beginning of Episode IV. And Tarkin’s role makes perfect sense given his position and role on the Death Star. Hopefully future films follow suit and don’t shoehorn popular characters for the sake of including well known characters, which will dilute those characters as well as steal spotlight from the new ones.
The Force Awakens
I have read many novels and comics that take place between the numbered episodes. Usually those stories have little emotional impact given we know the end point. We know new characters either won’t make it to the end or won’t be consequential, since they aren’t included in the later canon stories. Rogue One bucks that trend. It was exciting, thrilling, and intriguing. I was emotionally invested in Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi. The biggest stumble in this department was the handling of Galen and Lyra Erso. Most audience members will not have read the prequel novel Catalyst. Without that background story, the fate of Lyra and Galen has little impact beyond Jyn losing her parents. Reading Catalyst greatly aided understanding the opening scenes and offered a greater appreciation for the quick death of Lyra Erso and limited screen time of Galen Erso. While the novel isn’t mandatory for enjoying Rogue One, it definitely added a lot of back story. Having such synergy between the media elements of the Star Wars universe should aid the building of the galaxy far, far away after Disney mercilessly silenced the millions of characters now dubbed “Legends.”
The Saga Continues
It might be hyperbole to proclaim Rogue One the best Star Wars movie. That’s clearly recency bias and potentially a backlash against the tried and true fan service of Episode VII. But this was the Star Wars movie we needed in 2016. After so many real world tragedies, and such widespread cultural and political strife, we all needed a movie to rally around. And there is no better common enemy than the Empire and the Death Star. Our contemporary zeitgeist is illustrated by the trials suffered by the diverse group of good guys at the hands of the white washed bad guys. The movie manages to be a little something for everyone, with layers and references to satisfy those who dig deeper.
May you be one with the Force and may the Force be with you.