Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is appropriately titled. It isn’t a “Star Wars movie” in that it isn’t about the Skywalker family, nor is it about the specific large mythic arcs that define that universe. Instead, it’s a self-contained story within that universe, but it turns out that it connects some missing pieces in a very satisfying way. Even seeing the original films as a child, I understood that part of what makes Star Wars so fascinating is that it presents us with a complete universe, and for every story it shows on-screen, there are dozens of others happening off-screen. The Cantina sequence from the original film, for example, allowed the camera to glide past an endless series of narrative tributaries before snapping back to the main story, but that taste was absolutely enough in 1977. While we’ve since seen a continuation of the hinting at alternative narrative threads in subsequent films (consider how great a film could be made about Cloud City, for example), Rogue One is the first time the franchise has committed to telling a complete story that, while it does feature an appearance by at least one Skywalker, it isn’t specifically about that family. Instead, it’s about Star Wars. It’s literally a Star Wars story.
The only important question, as always with my reviews, is if this is a good film or not. And the answer to that is (in the voice of Newt from Aliens), “Mostly”. Rogue One is a beautiful film with a violent scar across its face in the form of the terribly written and ill-conceived first act. The last two-thirds of this film are as good as anything Star Wars-related ever put on the screen. But the first third of the film is a convoluted, awkward mess, the equivalent of watching a great athlete stumble, get to their feet, and stumble again before breaking into an heroic sprint. It’s impossible from this vantage point to know exactly where to place the blame for this, but it has to be acknowledged that the flaw exists before we rain deserving praise upon the balance of the film.
Rogue One, as fans have known for years, tells the story of how the plans for the Death Star wound up in the hands of the Rebel Alliance, and just to add more richness to the mixture, explains why the Death Star had such an obvious and exploitable design flaw that allowed it to be destroyed in the original 1977 film. The nominal protagonist is Jyn Erso, played with great pluck by Felicity Jones, a scrappy criminal living on the fringes of the Galactic Empire with a secret: her father, Galen Erso, was the designer of the Death Star. The film begins by showing us how Galen was taken from his family when Jyn was just a child and coerced into working for an Empire about which he has developed deep reservations. (A flashback sequence shows that this was not always the case, and Galen was once a high-ranking Imperial officer.) As the film’s narrative gets moving, it’s revealed that Jyn has not seen her father for years, but the Rebel Alliance needs her in order to find him, ostensibly at first to kill him, but later to simply steal the blueprints in order to exploit a weakness that [minor spoilers] Galen himself built into the fortress in the hopes that the Alliance would indeed attack it. After that, it’s pretty much full speed ahead towards the finale, involving stealing data from a central library system and beaming it up to a Rebel warship during a typically complex and multi-faceted epic Star Wars battle sequence.
That plot summary is about as straightforward and clean as it can be made, and it omits the single most grating and irritating flaw in the film: the character of Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker. Placed into the first act for no apparent reason other than to create some non-existent tension and add complexity where the opposite is needed, this character is nothing more than a pointless distraction from the main story arc. He has only a few scenes, which promise to lead somewhere, but ultimately lead nowhere, and the only story element he contributes to the narrative — that the Rebel Alliance is composed of many disparate factions, some of which are more extreme than others — is made more effectively elsewhere. Once again, it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly why this character exists and why he’s in this film, but his removal would have fixed 90% of Rogue One’s flaws.
Once Gerrera is out of the way, the film hits the ground running and never lets up. The supporting cast is superb, with blind warrior Chirrut Imwe, played by the superb Donnie Yen, standing out. Yen never steals scenes, but he makes a deep impression, which is the very definition of a perfect character actor. He and his wingman Baze Malbus, played by Jiang Wen, are the film’s “Greek chorus”, contributing to the action as a tightly knit team, but never stealing focus away from Jyn’s story. Other notable new characters are Orson Krennic, played with delicious British villain relish by Ben Mendelsohn, channeling a young Sir Ian McKellan and the obligatory (but hilarious) wisecracking droid K-2SO, voiced by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk. The great Mexican actor Diego Luna plays Cassian Andor, nominally the leader of the “Rogue One” mission and Rebel secret agent, but his character suffers from being slightly under-written. Kudos to the creative team (the film has four writers, which in Hollywood terms means it had at least twelve), however, for not shoving in an arbitrary and predictable love story between Andor and Jyn.
There are a few notable appearances by classic characters as well, including Jimmy Smits reprising his role as Bail Organa from the prequel trilogy and giving the film some gravitas. Probably the most effective of the returning classic characters is Darth Vader himself, voiced as always by James Earl Jones. Vader is used well here. The prequel trilogy (and, it must said, Return of the Jedi), defanged this character slightly, but Director Gareth Edwards knows exactly how to use him. Vader is a “heavy”, and should come across as threatening every moment he’s on-screen. He’s a tightly wound spring, primed to lash out violently at the slightest provocation, and the character gets exactly that treatment here. When his lightsaber finally emerges at the end of the film, it’s a classic Star Wars moment, and reminds us of a time when Darth Vader scared the dickens out of us as children. Fans will also note dozens of other easter eggs scattered throughout, too numerous to name here and that would spoil some of the fun. (But Blue Milk does make an appearance.)
Other classic characters are handled with less success. Much has already been written about the appearance of a CG replica of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and I won’t argue with any of my colleagues’ assessments that the character slips deep into the uncanny valley. The technology simply isn’t up to the task, and the character sticks out as unconvincing and disturbing, and one can’t help but think, as a writer, that Tarkin really isn’t necessary for this story. (The same goes for Gerrera.) The story could have been told without him, and lost nothing. The other CG classic character, whose appearance I will not spoil, is also a bit of a CG nightmare, but in their case, there’s a much stronger story justification for what amounts to a brief but significant cameo.
But let’s not make the mistake of damning the film with faint praise: the final two acts of Rogue One are spectacular. From sequence to sequence, Edwards keeps the pace up and the action sequences are involving, creative and often simply beautiful to watch. Star Wars hasn’t been this good since The Empire Strikes Back, and the battle scenes in space are actually better than Return of the Jedi because they’re more emotionally resonant and tense. It’s everything a Star Wars fan could ever want from a Star Wars film, once we overlook the flaws. If this film really is an “experiment”, as Kathleen Kennedy has said, then the creators should carefully consider what works about it and what doesn’t, so the next standalone film can be that much stronger.