By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 11, 2016
Gareth Edwards’s December 2016 blockbuster, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is a film very much set in the Star Wars universe but not quite of that fictional realm.
The movie can be watched independently of any other Star Wars feature, and arguably might be more enjoyable that way. Nonetheless, it serves as a sort of prequel to the very first Star Wars film, the 1977 movie retroactively retitled Star Wars: A New Hope, to the point that Rogue One ends shortly before the action of George Lucas’s original blockbuster commences. The McGuffin of the new release is the Death Star, the top-secret planet-destroying super-weapon central to A New Hope — or perhaps more accurately the Death Star’s engineering specifications, which the protagonists must discover and help learn how to destroy.
Edwards’s movie features a few characters from A New Hope, notably the villains Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin (using the digitally reconditioned face of the late Peter Cushing) and the robots C-3PO and R2-D2, mostly in brief cameos, as well as a handful of settings from the earlier picture.
But the main action in Rogue One involves the awkwardly named Jyn Erso. Her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), was once a lead engineer for the Death Star before he grew disgusted with the totalitarian Galactic Empire and fled to a remote farm world with his wife and child.
The picture’s prologue (which lacks the franchise’s traditional opening scroll) shows the malevolent “Director” Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arriving at this unnamed world to return the elder Erso to his military-industrial labors. Having feared and expected this possibility for years, Galen orders his beloved young “Stardust” (Beau Gadsdon) to flee into the fields as Krennic’s shuttle approaches. Young Jyn runs, but not before she sees her mother Lyra (Valene Kane) cruelly cut down by the Imperial official’s black-clad “death troopers.”
The action picks up about 13 years later with Jyn now portrayed by the talented Brit Felicity Jones, whom I’d last seen playing a devoted wife and mother in the biopic Theory of Everything. A Rebel Alliance special-operations squad rescues Erso from an Imperial labor camp and persuades the rather surly and ungrateful 20-something to help them contact a guerrilla organization that is holding an Imperial defector on the planet Jedha.
The Alliance needs Erso because Jedha’s guerrillas are led by Saw Gerrerra (a grizzled Forest Whitaker, encumbered by lots of clothing and, occasionally, a respirator), who helped keep Jyn the child from Krennic’s clutches but has in recent years become hostile toward other rebel factions. The recalcitrant Erso agrees to help only because Gerrerra’s captive claims to have information about Galen’s whereabouts.
Erso is accompanied on the mission by two of her rescuers: A human operative named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, who had a memorable supporting role as the leader of a criminal syndicate in Elysium) and a reprogrammed Imperial droid designated K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk, who lent his pipes to the title character of I, Robot). In order to contact Gerrerra, they visit a Jerusalem-like desert community known as Jedha City where the Empire is looting rare crystals from an ancient temple. A few hours later, a test-firing of the Death Star has obliterated Jedha City in order to conceal information about the newly completed secret weapon.
Erso and company barely escape the blast, bringing along a few new friends: Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, a pair of friendly temple guardians (played respectively by Donnie Yen and Base Malbus), and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial cargo pilot who has defected as part of a desperate bid to destroy the Death Star.
The group — now racing against Krennic, whom the high-ranking Tarkin has ordered to snuff out possible other leaks — travel to an Imperial weapons research facility on the planet Eadu, where Rook has been transporting Jedha crystals and where Galen Erso and his team have recently concluded their work. A short but pitched battle ensues, as does an all-too-brief reunion of the Ersos.
This sets the stage for the movie’s final act: A raid on a heavily guarded Imperial data archive on yet another planet, Scarif, where Galen says the rebels can obtain the blueprints they need to plan an attack that will exploit the Death Star’s secret weakness. (Erso, you see, has deliberately designed the immense weapon with a vulnerability that his Imperial overseers would never detect.)
But the rebel brass deems the Scarif incursion too risky a ploy, so the rogue raiders won’t have any backup should their venture go south… or will there be a last-moment change of heart?
Four writers worked on the movie. The script was written by Chris Weitz, writer-director of cinematic adaptations of the novels About a Boy, The Golden Compass and the Twilight sequel New Moon, and Tony Gilroy, author of several thriller screenplays, including multiple Jason Bourne movies, and writer-director of Michael Clayton, Duplicity and The Bourne Legacy. They worked from a story concocted by John Knoll, a visual effects specialist whose only writing credit is Rogue One, and Gary Whitta, who’s helped script multiple computer games as well as the films The Book of Eli and After Earth. They do an excellent job ratcheting up the tension and the scale of the action — each battle is bigger than the last — and integrating the events of Rogue One with those of A New Hope. Unfortunately, the bond that gradually grows among Jyn, Andor and K-2SO never seems very compelling, and some of the pep talks Andor and Jyn give struck me as embarrassingly hokey.
Edwards, who wrote and directed the independent science-fiction movie Monsters, stages the combat cleanly and excitingly and does a decent job juggling the story’s innumerable plot points. Rogue One is light years better than Edwards’s last film, Godzilla, his first go-round helming a major studio production, which was riddled with logical flaws and saddled with bland, uninteresting lead characters.
But Rogue One movie falls short on two counts. First, it throws so many characters (many of them men sporting scruffy facial hair) and planets at the audience that it’s challenging to figure out what’s happening in the early going. Second, despite all the lively quips and exciting combat that the film has on offer, it’s surprisingly grim.
The lack of fun is one reason why some people question whether Rogue One is a true Star Wars film; another is the relative dearth of the mystical lightsaber-wielding Jedi and Sith wizards who set the Star Wars franchise apart from most other brands of space opera. I also felt that the movie’s structure, with its many complicated plot wrinkles and its multiple visits to far-flung locales, made it seem more like a combat-heavy variation on Mission: Impossible than a Star Wars outing.
By an accident of history — see 2016, U.S. presidential election of — I think Rogue One threatens to become relevant to a far larger demographic than Star Wars or science-fiction fans. The choices available for ordinary people in this faraway galaxy seem rather stark: submit to (or collaborate with) evil space nazis or sacrifice pretty much everything in a desperate bid to thwart them. I think that Edwards and company have inadvertently crafted the perfect movie for the Trump administration.