Movie Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (PG-13)

Movie Review Rogue One A Star Wars Story“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

Cue opening crawl.

No opening crawl.

Wait … what?!

That’s right folks. A “Star Wars” movie with no opening crawl. Why? Because this isn’t an “episode” but rather the first entry in a series on of “Star Wars” spinoff films that come with the apt subtitle, “A Star Wars Story.”

For years, “Star Wars” fans were all but convinced that George Lucas’ saga had come to a close with a trio of less-than-stellar prequels. Once Walt Disney Pictures and Kathleen Kennedy entered the equation, though, we learned not only that we would be treated to episodes seven, eight, and nine but that we’d also bear witness to a handful of standalone movies that take place in the same universe.

Now to be fair, “Rogue One” isn’t a standalone movie in the truest sense. It’s actually a direct prequel of sorts to “A New Hope.” And while this movie does resort to the prerequisite fan service, it also manages to succeed where George Lucas’ prequels appeared to fail. While those particular entries in the saga set out to give the original trilogy more meaning by way of a fleshed-out backstory, they were more of an exercise in tedium. “Revenge of the Sith” is the part of the backstory fans were most interested in, but we had to sit through the disappointing “The Phantom Menace” and the over-bloated “Attack of the Clones” to get to it. Those prequels, while technically adventurous, also lacked a true sense of joy. “Rogue One” by comparison offers up that old “Star Wars” magic you always hope for from these movies despite being the darkest and grittiest of all the films in the saga.

In “Rogue One,” loner Jyn Erso (Feicity Jones) has an axe to grind with the Empire. But then, doesn’t everybody? The majority of her hatred stems from an incident involving her father (Mads Mikkelsen) while she was just a young girl. Later on in life, she’s given an opportunity to rise up against her oppressors when she’s ultimately teamed with the likes of deadly Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind wannabe Jedi Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and a droid called K-2SO (voiced by the great Alan Tudyk.) Their mission is to steal the plans for the original Death Star and get them into the hands of the Rebel Alliance. Talk about a suicide mission!

It’s been a long road for “Rogue One.” Following completion, Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Pictures ordered re-shoots, and even though such re-shoots are common in today’s world of spectacle moviemaking, this news caused rampant speculation among legions of fans that the film wasn’t living up to the “Star Wars” name. The questions remained: How much was actually re-shot, and how much of the tone was being tampered with? I suspect years down the line we’ll get a tell-all book that offers up answers to these questions, but for the time being, we can surmise that a great deal of the film was altered, because a lot of the imagery in the trailers didn’t even make it into the competed movie. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it does offer up the element of surprise. By the same token, there are iconic images in those trailers that many of us were looking forward to experiencing in the context of the film, images that are now destined to sit in some dark vault never to be experienced, and that’s kind of sad.

“Rogue One” was directed by Gareth Edwards (“Monster,” “Godzilla”), and from the get-go, this up-and-coming filmmaker’s goal was to put the “Wars” in “Star Wars.” It’s a bit of a bummer to consider that the gritty battle to get his actual vision to the screen mirrors the war at the heart of the movie, but through it all, Edwards has remained a class act, and he has much to be proud of.

“Rogue One” is quite an epic affair. It’s big on action, big in scope, and big on special effects. As expected, the visual effects team have given it their absolute all, and by and large, they’ve succeeded. This isn’t to say that there aren’t missteps. For all the stunning visuals on display, the ball was dropped a little in terms of a certain bit of character work. Tarkin (played by the late Peter Cushing) makes an appearance in the film. A cameo would have been more appropriate, particularly given that “Rouge One” already has a primary villain in Orson Krennic (played by a menacing if a tad weasily Ben Mendelsohn), but instead, Tarkin appears as a supporting character. And since Cushing is no longer with us, the makers behind “Rogue One” decided to give Tarkin a misguided CGI facelift. The end result may be a grand technical achievement, but it isn’t at all a realistic achievement. If you’re going to attempt something like this, you better nail it, or it will serve as a distraction. In “Rogue One,” it’s definitely a distraction. Tarkin as presented in “Rogue One” feels like he’d be more at home in Robert Zemeckis’ version of “A Christmas Carol.” Perhaps if Tarkin had only been on screen for a minute or two, this obvious effect wouldn’t have been as glaring as it is. Case in point, a similar effect is attempted with another character at the end of the picture to stronger effect because this particular character is only on screen for a handful of seconds. In the end, Tarkin should have been omitted from the movie or played by onset actor Guy Henry. Hell, they didn’t go the CGI facelift route with Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), and that worked out great!

From a story standpoint, “Rogue One” is slow to start and fragmented in its approach. It jumps from one planet to another and doesn’t always do the best of jobs with character depth and arcs. Luna’s charismatic Cassian fares well as does Donnie Yenn’s blind man with faith, and sarcastic droid K-2SO emerges as the very personification of “scene stealer.” Sadly though, Jones isn’t really given much to work with, and given that her Jyn is the lead, that’s incredibly disappointing. It should also be noted that none of these characters really have that lived-in feel that make our favorites throughout the rest of the saga so darned endearing. For all its flaws, even the characters in “The Force Awakens” are the kind of people we’d like to spend multiple movies with. That isn’t always the case with “Rogue One,” but then I suppose it doesn’t need to be, because this really is a “one and done.” Still, it would have been intriguing to see the lively, infectiously likable characters from “The Force Awakens” engage in the gritty nature of “Rogue One’s” plot. That would have made for one hell of a “Star Wars” movie!

For all its character and pacing issues, though, by the midway point this war-film-in-space settles into a nice rhythm before dropping the gauntlet by way of a very exciting final act. From an epic space battle to Jyn and Cassian’s ground level struggle to an in-his-prime Darth Vader tearing shit up (no, his actions don’t jive with his entrance in “A New Hope,” but it’s still an awesome sight to see!), this is exhilarating stuff. True, we know where the events will lead, and it’s pretty apparent what will become of the majority of these characters by the end of the film. But there are plenty of thrills and surprises to be had along the way, and in it’s own way, “Rogue One” lends a surprising amount of weight to “A New Hope.” It doesn’t necessarily make “Episode IV” a better film (because let’s face it, “A New Hope” is already pretty damn perfect!), but again, by pulling back a bit on this universe and showing us what’s outside the frame, “Rogue One” manages to make “A New Hope” resonate more.

For my money, “Rogue One” isn’t amongst the very best of the saga, but thankfully, it’s a far cry from the worst. While hardly a complete standalone movie in the truest sense, it’s a clear indication that Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm are still willing to take some chances with the rich, iconic universe that George Lucas unleashed upon the world over 40 years ago. And with unique storytellers like Rian Johnson, Chris Miller, and Phil Lord in the mix, it looks like there are plenty of creative, risk-taking “Star Wars” adventures to come. While we anxiously await those entries, the flawed but altogether gritty, exciting, and grandiose nature of “Rogue One” makes it an ambitious and thrilling addition to the “Star Wars” saga.

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