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The Force Is with Them

Felicity Jones
Felicity Jones
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
 133 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna
Rogue One

The latest entry in the Star Wars canon, Rogue One, finally answers two questions that have been eating at fans and Disney studio executives for years. The first question is how the Empire could be so stupid as to design a planet killer Death Star weapon with a flaw that was apparent in its plans that allowed its destruction by means of a single torpedo. And second, would those same fans who obsessed over that seeming deus ex machina that brought down the Death Star be willing to accept a Star Wars movie that was not a part of the main storyline that had been established over the last 40 years. The answer to the first question is a spoiler I won’t reveal here, but the answer to the second is a resounding “yes.” And, moreover, it won’t just be series fans who will be impressed but lots of other moviegoers who enjoy well-made action films.


Rogue One is a prequel to what’s now called A New Hope, the 1977 film that launched the Star Wars franchise. Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy adopt the same technique George Lucas used in that first film of throwing the audience directly into the action without a whole lot of explanation. In a brief prologue, a child named Jyn Erso escapes from Imperial troops led by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who takes Jyn’s father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) to continue his work on the Death Star satellite. Fast forward a few years, and an adult Jyn (now played by Felicity Jones) is an Imperial captive on the desert planet Jedha, where she is rescued by a group of rebels led by Cassian Endor (Diego Luna).


Jyn and Cassian barely escape Jedha with their lives when Krennic and Governor Tarkin test the newly completed Death Star by destroying the planet’s largest city. Later, the two of them, accompanied by a couple of other rebels from Jedha learn from Galen that the plans for the Death Star, which may reveal the way to destroy the device, are stored in the archives on Scarif, a planet with a force shield that’s almost impossible to get in or out through. Jyn wants to go to Scarif to recover the plans, but the rebel leadership decides the mission is too risky. Unwilling to accept this decision by the leadership, Jyn, Cassian, and a few other rebels head to Scarif in a single ship to steal the plans.


Even for those without any knowledge of the Star Wars mythos, the last third of Rogue One, detailing the raid on the Imperial base on Scarif, will feel familiar to anyone who has ever seen The Dirty Dozen, The Lord of the Rings, or any other movie in which a small group of heroes goes on a seemingly impossible mission deep into enemy territory surrounded by large numbers of adversaries. Director Gareth Edwards handles the giant set piece quite well, cutting between the action on the ground, as Jyn and Cassian try to break into the storage facility and the aerial dogfights in space as rebel forces (who decide to help Jyn and Cassian once they realize what’s going on) try to find a way for those on the ground to smuggle the captured plans out. The resulting battle sequence ranks with the best ever in the Star Wars franchise.


The earlier parts of Rogue One, however, definitely play better for those familiar with the franchise. In scene after scene, the filmmakers pay homage to those who have gone before them. Jyn Erso isn’t all that well developed a character, but she bears a physical similarity to Daisy Ridley, star of last year’s The Force Awakens and seems to live by her wits just as Daisy’s character Rey did. Instead of Han Solo and Chewbacca, Rogue One has its two best human heroes, a blind martial arts expert named Chirrut (Donnie Yen), who uses the Force to see (his frequently chanted mantra is “I am with the Force and the Force is with me.), and his best friend, the considerably larger Baze (Jiang Wen). The best character in the entire movie is K2-SO (Alan Tudyk), sort of a C3P0 on steroids, a seven-foot Imperial battle droid that has been reprogrammed to fight with the rebels. The droid supplies most of the humor in the movie, with a number of overly literal responses in queries.


Sometimes, the similarities to earlier Star Wars movies are even more startling. Governor Tarkin, who was played by Peter Cushing in the original film is now played by Guy Henry with Cushing’s face and physique digitally superimposed on his own. Henry’s voice sounds somewhat similar to Cushing’s as well. The result isn’t a perfect likeness, but it appears more like Cushing than any other computerized recreation of a dead actor I’ve seen. Moreover, the character of Tarkin has a substantial role in Rogue One and carries on somewhat lengthy conversations with Krennic and others. Using Cushing’ likeness may be a gimmick, but it’s a highly memorable one.


The Cushing transformation is just one of the many dazzling CGI effects in the movie. George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic handled the special effects, and, unlike the many overblown superhero effects in other movies, they all work here. The key to the success of the Star Wars effects and production design over the years has been attention to detail and making sure that the entire screen stays busy the whole time. In scene after scene, there are bits of business, usually unexplained, going on constantly. It’s the visual equivalent of Robert Altman’s technique of having characters talk all over each other. Here, battles look like actual battles, with characters moving independently all over the screen.


Rogue One differs from other Star Wars movies in some other key ways as well. The rebel alliance here is not a unified group of spotless characters. Instead, they differ as to strategy and tactics, with some being far less pure than the ideal of the Jedi. By having them debate and argue (albeit too briefly to really establish very many of them as distinct characters), Rogue One feels gritty and realistic. The villains too have their disagreements. Ben Mendelsohn delivers the best performance in the movie as the weasely Krennic, a bureaucrat who is more interested in preserving his own legacy as the “father” of the Death Star than the ethics of killing millions. He and Tarkin engage in a round of corporate backstabbing reminiscent of Dick Jones and Bob Morton in Robocop. All of this debating, arguing, and intrigue, not to mention the brutal nature of some of the violence, makes Rogue One a darker, but more realistic movie.


The one thing that Rogue One lacks is a truly memorable set of characters. Jyn and Cassian are no Luke and Leia, or no Han and Leia either for that matter. Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) does put in an appearance, but it’s really just an extended cameo. The two most memorable characters are a droid and a bureaucratic villain. The fault lies in the script, which is too busy moving the characters from one planet to another to really develop them. Jyn and Cassian each have a single speech that’s intended to explain their actions, but it seems like too much of an information dump.


Rogue One, however, was never intended to further the Star Wars mythos that George Lucas originally envisioned for the three trilogies. Instead, it fills in a gap, as does the already announced film about the young Han Solo. Frankly, Disney could have trotted out just about anything onscreen for two hours and made a ton of money. Instead, they made a dazzling technical film and a solid action adventure. Ironically, the fill-in movie, despite not having crowd pleasers Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, is easily the equal of the “official” most recent chapter in the Star Wars saga. And, as long as filmmakers remain reasonably faithful to the mythos and mindful of the quality of the production, the saga seems poised to continue for years to come.  

In this scene, Felicity Jones and Diego Luna take on a bevy of stormtroopers.

Read other reviews of Rogue One:


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) on IMDb