Darkness pervades every aspect of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a Gareth Edwards-directed film that screened this past weekend as A&O Films’ free showing. Part of the Star Wars franchise, the movie itself is very dark and often stormy, like it’s channeling the series’ true Shakespearean roots right onto the screen. However, the story is much darker than anything Star Wars has done before. Our heroine, Jyn Erso (played by The Theory of Everything’s Felicity Jones) has a bleak past, and unlike Luke Skywalker, she carries this past with her as a heavy burden throughout the film.
The biggest question everyone seemed to be asking way back when Rogue One came out was whether it could compare with the “true” Star Wars trilogies, including the most recently released (and fantastic) addendum, The Force Awakens. Rogue One would be the first Star Wars film to not to give any major roles to beloved characters from the trilogies. Looking at it from the most dry, anti-fun perspective possible, this film was a test to see if Disney could profit off the Star Wars universe without relying on familiar (and expensive) actors like Harrison Ford or Mark Hamill. And does the film succeed?
From a technical standpoint, the answer is a clear and resounding yes. The action sequences of the film are magnificent, especially the “grand finale” battle that takes place on a tropical planet with electric-blue water. Edwards knows exactly how Star Wars does action, shown as we follow the Rebels in the jungle, the X-Wing fighters in the air and the massive Imperial ships in space with a thrilling speed.
Edwards also has a flair for the dramatic, and cameos from our favorite mouth-breathing villain and others (whom I won’t spoil) have all the necessary pomp and circumstance. I’ll admit it, I got goose bumps when the first few notes of “The Imperial March” blended into the rest of Michael Giacchino’s score as Darth Vader emerges for the first time.
The film also makes the most of newly available film technology, literally recreating the face of Peter Cushing, who played lower-level villain Governor Tarkin from the original trilogy. The technology almost works, to the point where I spent half the film thinking, “There’s no way that guy looks exactly the same as he did in 1977.” (As it turns out, he died in 1994.) However, it’s still slightly unsettling to watch, and the expressions don’t look quite human. But hey, if any film should try to be cutting-edge, it should definitely be a Star Wars film.
From a storytelling standpoint, however, Rogue One stumbles a little. The tale begins when young Jyn Erso witnesses her mother’s murder and her father saving her by agreeing to help the evil Empire build the Death Star. Heavy stuff for sure. She grows up under the wing of an “extremist Rebel” named Saw Gerrera (played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) as a hardened, self-reliant fighter who doesn’t let anyone, including us, in. The rest of the story covers Jyn being recruited by the Rebel Alliance to find her father. Upon finding him, the Rebels plan to use Jyn as their link to gather information about the Death Star to destroy it.
Along with Jyn, the cast includes the brooding pilot Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) and his snarky droid companion K-2SO. There’s a blind Force-warrior named Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen) and Îmwe’s friend and gun aficionado Baze Malbus (played by Jiang Wen). There’s also a defected Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (played by Riz Ahmed).
Individually, all of these characters are really fascinating. However, the film doesn’t seem interested in having them talk much or delving into any aspects of their characters. Why does someone who believes in the peaceful power of the Force hang out with someone who loves machine guns? Why did Rook defect from being an Imperial pilot? No explanation is offered. It’s incredibly rare that even the two leads, Jyn and Cassian, have an exchange outside the realm of, “Here’s what we are going to do and here’s why.”
Half of the fun of watching the Star Wars films (in my honest nerd opinion) is hearing the little quips back and forth between the characters. Who doesn’t love the rapport between Han Solo and Princess Leia? Or even C-3PO and R2-D2? The quick one-liners the characters throw out between explosions and light-saber battles are what let us understand them as characters and the absence of these lines makes it incredibly hard to connect with Jyn, despite Felicity Jones’s excellent performance.
We can all agree that at its core, Star Wars is an epic space opera – and if you have any doubts about that, please re-watch the scene where Luke finds out who his father is. Rogue One, though, is a pure action movie. This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film – the action is beautifully done and exhilarating throughout – it just can’t equal the drama of the classic Star Wars series. By all means, though, I hope Disney continues to make these one-off films. With two more films scheduled to finish the Force Awakens trilogy, it will be interesting to see where Disney decides to go next in the vast universe Star Wars has created.