For years, decades even, Star Wars fans had to rely on the Expanded Universe to tell the meaningful stories in the Galaxy we all love. After the original trilogy so successfully setup a world that we could return to as often as we like, there were no signs of new properties on the horizon. So we turned to books and video games to get that Star Wars fix. Then the Prequels happened. I was young when Episode 1 was released, somewhere around 10 years old. I loved it. The monsters, the lighthearted tone, the pod racing. It was only until I got older and realized that the Prequels are terrible, unrelenting and, unapologetically terrible. It had successfully killed a franchise.
Then Disney bought Lucasfilm, and a new trilogy was announced. I was cautiously optimistic. When JJ Abrams was announced to direct Episode 7, I lost my mind. We were finally going to get a new Star Wars film that was actually good. The Force Awakens came out last year to great success. There were tears, laughter, nostalgia, and heartache. It was a new beginning to a franchise that I love so much.
While it's true that The Force Awakens is essentially A New Hope with different characters, that was necessary to reestablish and reintroduce this franchise to so many. A message had to be sent that these films wouldn't focus on Trade Routes or Gungans. This is a world you already know and love with the characters you know and love. And while the political battles of the Prequels are important to the overall story, The Force Awakens realized that's not what the films should focus on. Books are a perfect medium to dig into the minutiae of political standing in the Galaxy.
But it was Rogue One, even more so than The Force Awakens, that piqued my interest. This was a story that I often wondered. How did the Rebels get the plans to the Death Star in A New Hope? We know in Return of the Jedi that Bothans were responsible for stealing the plans to Death Star Vol. 2, but we're never really given any insight to such a pivotal plot point in Episode 4. And why is there such an obvious and simple flaw with the Death Star? These are the questions that have led to wild fan theories and speculation, but we'd never been given a definite answer. Until now.
Let me just say that Rogue One is a fantastic film, regardless of it being a Star Wars film. This could easily be set in any universe and be successful. And that's one of the many reasons this could be one of the best Star Wars films we have so far. There is no Opening Crawl, no Circle Transitions or Screen Wipes. This is a standalone Star Wars story, and it's a great one.
For the uneducated, (and I'll stay spoiler free, with a few references that should be expected due to the time period) Rogue One is the story of the Rebels who stole the Death Star plans from the Empire, leading into A New Hope. We follow the reluctant hero, Jyn Erso (the fantastic Felicity Jones) as she meets up with a ragtag group who are searching for the lead architect of the Death Star, Jyn's father. Galen Erso (played by the immensely talented Mads Mikkelsen) had left the Empire to raise his family because he disagreed with the direction they were taking. But the Empire, and specifically main antagonist Krennic, doesn't care. He has to return to finish his work on the Death Star.
One of the many things that makes Rogue One work is the cast. Felicity Jones as Jyn is relatable and believable. Diego Luna plays Cassian Andor, a Rebel fighter who's been in the trenches since he was 6. Donnie Yen portrays Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior who is so in tune with the Force, he can fight a hoard of Stormtroopers without a scratch. There are so many characters here that are so well written and so well realized. We're dropped in a specific spot in time, days before the events of A New Hope, and these characters all feel like they have backstories. They feel like they've lived, which is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off. The star of the show is new robot K-2SO (voiced perfectly by Alan Tudyk). In such a dark film, he was the welcome comic relief. And the beautiful thing about the character is how little he's used. There's a balancing act that goes with comic relief, too much and you fall in the "Transformers 2" or "Phantom Menace" (I'll forever skip that film when I marathon Star Wars, specifically because of Jar Jar...) realm where it's so over the top that it's unbearable. Too little and this turns into "Saving Private Ryan". The writers (story by Gary Whitta and screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) have done an incredible job on keeping that balance.
There are, of course, flaws. The film brings back some characters from the Original Trilogy that serve as cool fan service, but are used too often. Darth Vader, arguably the greatest villain ever put to film, is a fitting monstrosity, showing how truly powerful he can be with very little effort. It's an awesome scene that would've played even better if it was the first time we see him in the film. His earlier appearance only serves as fan service and does little by way of plot. And again, we assumed we'd get some Tarkin simply because of how important he is to the Empire and to the Death Star in A New Hope, but the CG reanimation of the actor (who has long since passed) was a bit, uncanny valley. It looked great, the CG looked like Tarkin (if not a bit older than he looked in the original), but there were too many close up shots that really showed the imperfections of the animation. Again, it's a balancing act, anytime you use computers to superimpose an actors face over someone else you run the risk of it looking bad. Tarkin looked great for moments, but the longer you see him, the more you scrutinize the look.
Rogue One does a phenomenal job of something the Original Trilogy never had the luxury of doing due to the type of story it was telling. For the first time, we get a real sense of the size and might of the Empire. In the Original Trilogy, the Empire always seemed to be where our heros were, which felt like a happy coincidence. But Rogue One really shows how massive the Empire truly is. They have an entire planet specifically for mining resources, they have an entire planet dedicated to storing their archives, which is entirely protected by a massive shield that encompasses the planet. Rogue One shows us that the Empire doesn't just happen to be where our heros are, the Empire is everywhere.
And yes, there are glaring plot holes, but with any Science Fiction property, a suspension of your belief has to be put in my place. This is a much darker Star Wars film, in line with Empire Strikes Back; but even with the darker tone, Rogue One is fun. The first half can drag a bit simply because these are all new characters. We don't recognize a vast majority of the names and a lot of exposition has to be put in place in order for us to care about these characters. But the last half of the film is a blast. Seeing all of the different locations (and there are many), seeing the familiar in strange areas (AT-AT's in a tropical landscape was absolutely incredible). It's these moments that make the exposition worth it.
We know what happens after this story is told, but have never had insight into how that story began. Now we do and it's one of the best Star Wars stories to date.
All Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm