Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, is in many ways not a standalone at all. It is a direct prequel to the original movie from 1977, and features scores of deep-cut references, allusions and easter eggs that only hardcore fans will appreciate. So Rogue One is big-budget fanservice. But crucially, it’s more than that. It’s fanservice that also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick of Rogue One is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (and works as such; the ending made me cry), but it also fundamentally changes its texture.
The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and seeks to solidify its reign by constructing a planet-killing superweapon. To complete work on the Death Star, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces the scientific genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), father of Jyn (Felicity Jones), into service. When Galen sends a secret message to the reeling Rebellion tipping them off to a structural weakness in the Death Star, a scrappy guerilla team must steal the Death Star plans. The team: Jyn; lethal Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); sarcastic tactician droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk); desperate Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); and his cynical companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). But in this war, can any hope survive in the grime of Imperial domination?
In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. That tale is great, it has its place, but Rogue One complicates it. There’s ethical compromise in the Rebellion, represented by Cassian. There’s a pecking order in the Empire, an elitist element that Krennic must constantly prove himself to. There are extremists on both sides. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s methods are disavowed by the Rebel establishment, while his opposite number, Darth Vader, plays enforcer for an unstable galaxy. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens recreates the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the main characters here are underdogs even within the Rebellion. And Krennic, the villain they face, is an underdog even within the Empire.
None of this thematic stuff would click if the character work wasn’t there, and thankfully it is. All the characters resonate, but standouts include comic relief monstrosity K-2SO (think C-3PO with a two-by-four in place of an etiquette program), and apathetic loner to inspirational leader Jyn Erso. But my favorite character is Cassian Andor, who embodies what makes Rogue One work so well. The co-leading hero in the film, Cassian is exciting because he’s tainted. Pretty much the first thing you see him do is shoot an unarmed ally in the back because he would be a liability! (And you thought Han shot first?) He personifies the risks that the film is willing to take, introducing a Rebel officer as a morally compromised hero. The main characters are allowed to be impure or damaged, and Krennic, while ruthless, has to deal with bureaucratic and browbeating BS from superiors more evil than he. The idea is that the Rebellion’s purest heroes and the Empire’s purest villains are more background players, and we get to spend time with relatively complex characters.
Rogue One manages to stuff a lot of character into what is perhaps too compressed an amount of time. This does have downsides. Jyn’s character arc is good, but feels like it has a middle and an end while missing part of the beginning – we’re told Jyn’s rap sheet but we don’t see her struggles fending for herself brought to life. The first act has a lot of quick planet-hopping setup and so probably works better on a rewatch. Conversely, while the action in the third act is alternately breathtaking, tense, and emotionally powerful, it still feels like a little paring down might have made it pop even more.
But flaws aside, the storytelling always has something up its sleeve. This is a surprisingly emotional movie, largely owing to how the light contrasts all the more against the desperate circumstances. Chirrut’s reverence of the Force becomes poignant precisely because the Jedi have passed into myth. Put Obi-Wan Kenobi on the team and the everyman quality to the group crumbles. In a stroke of genius, the first test of the Death Star’s awesome destructive power is made intimate and personal. The pacing and atmosphere is far removed from the propulsive, almost manic The Force Awakens (which is great in that context). It’s Star Wars sung in a different key in a different time signature, and I ate it up.
Technically speaking, Rogue One has much to commend it. I love how the CGI Star Destroyers as near as damn them look exactly like physical models. The cinematography, and vaguely documentarian aesthetic courtesy of director Gareth Edwards make the action and emotion hit home. And considering composer Michael Giacchino only had a couple months to score the film after replacing Alexandre Desplat, his score contains some solid motifs.
Rogue One commits to its war movie aesthetic brilliantly. The acting ensemble is outstanding; even tertiary characters like the leery General Draven feel rich. This is a smart, weird, exciting, occasionally sloppy, and surprisingly emotional blockbuster, which enriches Star Wars in a two-hour salvo. It will be remembered for playing with what the franchise can do, while also blowing stuff up real good. 9/10. — If you’re a fan of the saga, there’s a good chance you’ll get emotional at the last scene. But after certain recent events… it might wreck you.
P.S.: *SPOILER-FILLED STRAY NERDY OBSERVATIONS*
So this is a mainstream blockbuster where every main character dies. With a sweeping gesture out of Shakespearean tragedy, the board is cleared and only characters on the fringes live to carry on. Disney will sugarcoat anything.
Darth Vader. Giving him an imposing evil tower immediately casts him in the same company as Sauron (with lava planet Mustafar standing in for Mordor). It codifies his status as an iconic villain. But it’s worth noting that a castle for Vader isn’t a new idea; it was proposed in concept art for the original trilogy and was even considered for inclusion in The Force Awakens. Vader’s first scene with Krennic perhaps isn’t everything it could have been. It ends with what I call “stand-up comedy Vader”, but even though it feels a bit weird in the moment, it’s not too far off from his “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” brand of humor. Vader’s other scene is just terrific. Add the hint of his vulnerability and his weird Riff Raff-esque butler, and Rogue One does some interesting things with this Dark Lord of the Sith.
When the Empire puts up the shield in orbit of Scarif, an X-Wing can’t pull up and crashes into it. Which is exactly what should have happened in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fighters are flying to the second Death Star thinking the shield is down.
Star Wars isn’t known for romance. It has a few, but they’re either dreadfully stilted community theater (Anakin and Padmé) or a whirlwind flirtation carried by bickering and banter (Han and Leia). So am I alone in thinking that Rogue One contains the hottest moment in all of Star Wars? When Jyn and Cassian are in close quarters in the elevator, and it’s filmed like they might kiss, and they don’t?
If Rogue One came out when I was in junior high, it would have been the biggest deal in the world that Garven Dreis and Dr. Evazan are in the movie. Now, it’s just really cool. But in junior high, I wouldn’t have caught the significance of Chirrut and Baze being Guardians of the Whills, which is a reference to George Lucas’ original title for his Star Wars screenplay: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1.
What may be the most highly anticipated film of all time is here, continuing the most popular film series of them all. So after all the hype, what are we left with? Impressive restraint. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is something I would have hardly expected: a movie whose ambition largely doesn’t exceed its reach. It’s a high wire act, where the small-scale interpersonal drama (with unprecedented levels of character development for this franchise) is just as important as the large-scale space opera. Star Wars is back, with all its old trademarks of pulpy dialogue, a lived-in world, humor, and screen wipes, all energized by an exciting new cast of characters.
It’s thirty years after the Empire was sent scurrying to the Outer Rim after the Battle of Endor; a New Republic governs, but remnants of the Empire have come together as the First Order, countered by a paramilitary Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). On the desert planet Jakku, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovers a key piece of intelligence, before he’s beleaguered by Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) force of stormtroopers (including John Boyega’s reluctant trooper Finn). Poe hides the information in his droid BB-8, and as the little BB unit comes across a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), the hunt is on for the droid. Because both the First Order and the Resistance covet what’s hidden inside it…
The Force Awakens’ greatest strength lies in its new characters (which in and of itself is a kind of best-case scenario for this franchise reintroduction). In Ridley and Boyega’s Rey and Finn, Star Wars has hit upon a pair with exceptional chemistry together, and charisma apart. She is technically minded and self-sufficient, with abandonment issues. He is stubborn in his desire to do the right thing in all cases, with a tendency to get in over his head. Together, they’re a fun pair to follow into the future of these films, especially given that they feel like real and relatable people in a universe where that’s not necessarily the norm.
But in my mind the film’s breakout character is its villain, Kylo Ren. He is as ragged as the untamed blade of his red lightsaber, always playing at being more than he is, more implacable, more dominant, more evil. He has spectacular Force-assisted temper tantrums. And when the mask comes off, Driver reads his lines with this beautiful mixture of menace and ineffectuality. Because The Force Awakens gives nearly equal time to developing its villain as it does its heroes, Kylo Ren is given space to shine as a fascinating character, and while he may idolize and model himself after Darth Vader, Kylo is a different beast altogether.
Kylo Ren puts on the mask because he wants to be larger-than-life. But in good guy Poe Dameron and bad guy General Hux, we have characters here that legitimately are. Poe is a semi-flamboyant, ultra-charismatic top gun X-wing pilot, given little room for particular depth but lighting up the screen because of his mere “coolness”. On the flip side, Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is a tyrannical yet jealous, conniving yet pretentious, General in the First Order (or should I say in my best all-caps staccato English accent, “the FEHST AWERDEHR”). There’s a total Triumph of the Will scene involving legions of stormtroopers and Hux’… particular rhetorical style, bringing the First Order in line with the Third Reich as much as possible in a galaxy far, far away. Hitler at Nuremburg, much? The movie pushes the Nazi thing far, but Gleeson’s work as Hux makes it work, and he’s a character I’m particularly interested to see progress in future installments.
It must be said that stormtrooper Captain Phasma is a waste of Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie’s talents at this point, but again, the future should hold good things for this chrome trooper. If Phasma is developed well, Star Wars will have a very symmetrical balance of a trio of great heroes (Rey, Finn, Poe) opposing a trio of great villains (Kylo, Hux, Phasma). For now, in Rey and Kylo Ren, we have a hero and villain both still learning, still rough around the edges, and that’s exciting.
If there is a worry in The Force Awakens, it’s that this is a movie that doesn’t really cut loose its imagination. There are no big space battles. In Jakku we have a desert planet like Tatooine. In Takodana we have a forest planet complete with old temple like Yavin 4. In Starkiller Base’s surface we have an icy landscape like Hoth. The locations are not the most imaginative, but their groundedness also gives them cinematographic beauty – their relatability is a strength, but being earthbound could also could give the impression of a fan film. I think these choices mostly work for The Force Awakens, though, because it’s bringing an interesting hybrid of zaniness and realism to the Star Wars universe.
After all, these decisions also give us a dynamic shooting style courtesy of director J.J. Abrams. On Takodana, we have a thrilling oner that goes from a character scrambling on the ground, up to a kinetic dogfight in the sky, back down to the ground; it’s fluid and energetic in the best way. These decisions also give us a visceral and fresh take on lightsaber dueling. No 20-foot Force jumps here. A bruiser, pitted against a defensive combatant using a lightsaber almost like a rapier at times. Breathlessly exciting peaks and valleys in the flow of battle. There are a couple moments in the duel that do for lightsaber dueling what Creed did for boxing, both films shooting its action with hard immediacy and empathy for its characters.
Scaling back to the big picture of plot, The Force Awakens is nothing revolutionary. (I don’t weigh plot so much as character and quality of writing.) There are a few clear similarities to beats from the original trilogy, but I maintain that they’re superficial. The whole tenor of the beats, as well as how characters interact around them, is wildly different in context. The one noticeably weak plot element is Starkiller Base. There’s a bit where its size is compared with the Death Star, and that moment is kind of dumb and rote. But the Base is merely a backdrop, incidental in the face of its own destructive power. The real ballgame is what’s going on with the characters: Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and by this point, Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Yes, old characters have moments to shine in The Force Awakens, and it’s a credit to the movie that it took me this long to mention them directly; the film’s fresh blood is so good, I don’t have much to say about their predecessors. Suffice to say that they’re all present and correct, and welcome sights. It’s been 30 years since we’ve seen them, and a lot of history has happened in the meantime. The movie obfuscates a thing or two (the politics and beliefs of the First Order are quite unclear), but on the whole takes the right tack: hinting at things that have happened in that time gap without feeling the need to lengthily exposit on them. In the old days throwaway references were expanded into whole spinoff novels; a similar thing will undoubtedly happen now.
Episode VII: The Force Awakens reintroduces Star Wars through an exciting new cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and especially Adam Driver inject extraordinary energy into their roles, making the movie a great ensemble piece. The old elements are there, but they’re not the focus, and Star Wars can now look entirely to the future with a new creative regime. Let’s just get more imaginative in Episode VIII. (Stay tuned for the spoiler P.S. for more.) Unlike certain other films in the franchise, The Force Awakens stands as a synergistic work of craftsmanship, with solid cinematography, music, production design, writing, and directing. These elements lay the groundwork, and the characters jump off the page and carry the day. 9/10.
P.S.: May the SPOILERS be with you
In 1983, Harrison Ford wanted to be killed off in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. I presume he wanted the door closed so he didn’t have to return to the character. But thank the Maker he didn’t get his wish, not only because it freed him to have a last hurrah and interesting death in Episode VII, but also because Episode VI would have been a terrible swan song for him. (As far as I’m concerned, the writing and Ford’s goofy performance in that movie barely qualify as Han Solo.) So Han is dead at the hand of his son Ben. I like the death for Han because it’s such unfamiliar territory for his original character: dealing directly with dark side corruption, and intensely personal as opposed to a blaze of glory. But what I like most about the scene is that Kylo Ren’s plea to Han is entirely genuine. Far from being some kind of cheap fake-out, by looking directly into Ben’s eyes, Han really is giving his son the strength to take decisive action. It just happens that that action is patricide.
That kind of irony appears elsewhere in the film; Kylo Ren unwittingly has a large role in awakening the Force within Rey. And that duel is one for the ages. Firstly the slight misdirection in the marketing about Finn works a charm (the cross guard blade digging into Finn’s shoulder! Ouch!). And then when Kylo Ren tries to summon the lightsaber, and it proceeds to arc to Rey, is a crowning moment of triumph that left me physically shaking. The duel is great, and I think Rey’s moment of calm at the cliff edge is vital, because it’s something that Kylo Ren could never achieve. It’s a beautiful point to all those discussions about whether the Dark or Light side of the Force is stronger (expressed here as aggression vs. inner peace).
So the macguffin of the whole movie is the map to Luke Skywalker, in his hermitage on an island in a vast ocean. I’m totally fine with the relative lack of Luke; that just means a bigger role in the next movie. And how about that look on Luke’s face when the sees his old lightsaber? Like a look of profound sadness? Roll on Episode VIII! I’m rooting for you, Rian Johnson.
And am I the only one who thinks Supreme Leader Snoke resembles the Silence from Doctor Who?