Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the greatest video-game movie of all time -- despite not technically being based on a video game.
Reverse-engineered from George Lucas' original Star Wars, Rogue One, opening this Thursday, chronicles the heist of the Death Star plans, a mission that provides Rebel forces with the battle station's weakness and director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) with logic for a frenzied, planet-hopping blockbuster. The movie stands in contrast to last year's Episode VII: The Force Awakens; not only does Rogue One divert from the episodic saga revolving around Luke Skywalker (and his spiritual successor Rey), but the scope redefines the definition of Star Wars movies. It's a dream for anyone with hours of Star Wars: Battlefront multiplayer to his or her name. For series classicists, it plays as a diligent merger of old and new school. For those invigorated by The Force Awakens, the package could be completely befuddling.
Here's a full, non-spoilery look at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story before it hovers into orbit.
Life during star wartime
Since there's no expositional title crawl at the beginning of the movie, a little setup is needed: Rogue One starts in the years before the 1977 movie that launched the series, with the Galactic Empire holding a tight grip over the universe. To rein in portions of the galaxy that resist rule, the Emperor has commissioned the construction of the ultimate weapon: the Death Star. But the genius inventor behind the planet destroyer, a man named Galen Erso (Hannibal's Mads Mikkelsen), is in hiding. While it doesn't take long for Imperial douchenozzle Orson Krennic (Bloodline's Ben Mendelsohn) to haul him back to the diabolical drawing board, Galen's departure allows for his young daughter, Jyn, to go into hiding.
The thrust of Rogue One tracks grown-up Jyn (Theory of Everything's Felicity Jones), now a Han Solo-y ruffian making do on the fringe, as she falls into cahoots with the Rebellion. The anti-Empire insurgents, led by unlikely assassin Cassian Andor (Y Tu Mamá También's Diego Luna) want to track down and kill Galen Erso before he can complete the Death Star project. Jyn wants to find her father to understand what the hell is up. They band together to infiltrate Imperial bases, track down the imprisoned scientist, and eventually, steal a set of Death Star blueprints that reveal the 2-meter-wide thermal exhaust port just begging for a pair of proton torpedoes.
Writers Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity) build Rogue One out of levels instead of character arcs. Our heroes zip through hyperspace to an array of worlds slapped with an array of names -- Wobani, the ice prison planet! Jedha, the ancient Jedi moon! Eadu, the mining colony! -- each with its own objectives. It's like flip-booking through the pages of a Star Wars Visual Dictionary until Edwards introduces Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera, a violent rebel operating outside the cause who also happened to raise Jyn in her father's absence. He creates friction for the team, complicating the politics of their pursuit, but not enough to dial back a hurried pace or cure a case of prequelitis, where all roads lead to Star Wars 1977. Action becomes the real antidote, the inevitability of the situation transformed into tragedy through deadly stakes that scorch the screen. We feel the heat.
The fly girls and fly boys are... fly
The Force Awakens, and the promise of two more movies, gave new additions Rey, Finn, and Poe room to breathe and grow. Cast in a stand-alone, Jyn and company do not have that luxury. Edwards' casting becomes essential. Jyn is a stock drifter with daddy issues enlightened by Jones' take, a mixture of Harrison Ford gruff, Lara Croftian heroism, and inspirational-movie-speech vigor. That's enough to carry us through, but Rogue One will leave you wanting more.
This goes for just about everyone. Luna's Cassian remains a mystery by the end, dashing yet half-sketched, while Mendelsohn only earns a few scenes in which to show his teeth. Chinese superstars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen play Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior in tune with the Force, and Baze Malbus, his gunner ally, who add a flavor of badass mysticism to Jyn's mix while still coming off like playable character types instead of people. Yen's martial arts skills, employed to great effect against battalions of Stormtroopers, make up for the misgivings. Cassian's reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, motion-captured and voiced by Alan Tudyk (Firefly), is Star Wars' answer to Marvin, the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker's Guide, snapping and groaning and providing a laugh between war-torn moments. With no plans for a Rogue One 2, the movie's biggest failing is not giving us enough of any of this solid cast.
That's no moon... it's a computer graphic creation
Gareth Edwards has the eye of a painter, and like the moody sequences of his Godzilla reboot, Rogue One is filled with spectacle that will make you Chewbacca roar. The scope, from wide shots of colossal Star Destroyer maneuvers to foot soldiers outrunning AT-AT walkers in POV, is unreal, enveloping the Star Wars universe around the viewer for the first time. The enormity of the Empire's stronghold hovers over each scene in the movie -- sometimes literally (the Death Star creeping over a planet is the new shark from Jaws). Fans laud the original Star Wars movies for their employment of practical special effects (models, miniatures, and costumes) to pull off space battles and alien creatures, but Edwards perfects a blend that will send more chills down your spine than any Darth Vader appearance.
Only one CG moment sticks out like a sore thumb (and you may consider this a minor spoiler, so scroll down if you're worried!): Grand Moff Tarkin, the high-ranking Imperial underling played by Peter Cushing in Star Wars 1977, plays a major role in Rogue One. Thing is, Cushing died in 1994. Edwards and his collaborators resurrect the actor using computer technology, with results ranging from pristine to bubbly. The effect is a technical challenge in need of a Galen Erso to bring it home.
Edwards demonstrates the full power of his station
Rogue One outranks the other Star Wars movies on action terms. Even Lucas' hyperactive Revenge of the Sith space battle doesn't coordinate and choreograph like Edwards' sequences, which range from tight-knit shootouts to epically scaled war. Story often interferes with the laser-blasting grandeur -- a side-quest to a rainy Imperial base stages a sniper attack and X-Wing raid that's muddled by the pointlessness of why anyone's there in the first place -- but when an operation becomes clear, like the multi-tiered raid for the Death Star plans that plays over the last third of the movie, it's a rush of excitement. We know Star Wars is complete fiction, but Edwards gives the footage a documentary aura without resorting to shaky-cam or reluctant violence. Rogue One is a grim movie -- at times fighting against its own Star Wars-iness (Michael Giacchino's John Williams-lite feels more like interstitial padding than emotional amplification). Edwards' vision prevails. Even Vader gets his moment to be more ruthless than he ever has before.
And what of the Rebellion?
The gamified Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not without cut scenes, and while characters get the short end of the franchise stick, the message, Jyn's redemptive vow to stand up against oppression, is urgent and resonant. Orson Krennic and the Empire see the forceful assimilation of the galaxy as a unifying act. "You're confusing peace with terror," Galen tells Orson. "You have to start somewhere," the lackey responds with sinister glee. You don't have to be a political science grad student to connect the dots.
Rogue One makes good on the real-world parallels without teetering over a didactic edge. When we first see the Death Star drill into a planet's core, the blast sends up a mushroom cloud thousands of times bigger than anything we've seen in archival footage. Cassian and his crew lurk in shadows to conduct their business, channeling the documented spycraft dramatized in moves like Zero Dark Thirty. Later acts of violence weigh heavily on the men and women who enact them -- what does it take to undermine an entire empire? The unconscionable.
In Rogue One, the galaxy far, far away looks more like home than ever before. It's a movie that may scare the 10-year-old Rey devotees to death, but dares to deliver a message worth stringing through the Star Wars universe. Jyn's a real hero, and her heroism requires sacrifice. Yes, Rogue One is a big, crazy video-game movie -- but even big, crazy video-game movies are allowed to say something.
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