At last, the Star Wars cinematic universe has expanded, with the successful experiment Rogue One (subtitled in the marketing, but not on screen, as “A Star Wars Story”). The first of the so-called Star Wars anthology films, Rogue One takes place mostly in the year or so before the events of George Lucas’ initial 1977 Star Wars film (a.k.a. Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope), and it is a time of treachery.
Although Star Wars sprang from the Flash Gordon serials like Athena sprang from the head of Zeus, Lucas’ space operas share with his Indiana Jones franchise a fascination with WWII lore, with Rebels (Allies) versus “the Empire” (the Nazis and Axis powers). Star Wars took direct inspiration from the behind-enemy-lines "men on a mission" pictures of his youth, like 1955’s The Dam Busters and 1961’s The Guns of Navarone. And so, in more ways than one, Rogue One brings us full circle, to where Star Wars began. In its murkier moral tone, Rogue One perhaps best resembles the next wave of WWII action-suspense pictures of the 1970s (including Force 10 from Navarone, with none other than Harrison “Han Solo” Ford).
And so this new Star Wars picture, directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla), concerns a scrappy band of heroes and anti-heroes, "spies, saboteurs, assassins" of the Rebellion on their own behind-enemy-lines missions to resist the Empire. Word is that the Empire—under the leadership of Darth Vader (again voiced by James Earl Jones), Governor Tarkin (a CGI recreation of Peter Cushing), and Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)—has begun construction on “a planet killer,” the now-infamous Death Star.
The Rebel Alliance recruits Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Imperial science officer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), to reach out to grizzled Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). The Rebels hope that Saw will provide the means to find Galen and thereby learn of the Empire’s plans. Jyn doesn’t much care about all of that: she’d just like to see Dad again, who was ripped from her, in girlhood, by the Empire in the person of Krennic. (Whitaker gets to kick off the film proper with the self-reflexive line "We have a long ride ahead of us," especially a truism for those who never saw the appeal of Star Wars.)
And so, off she goes, a sister whose multicultural band of brothers comes to include Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); the probability-calculating, reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk); Force-worshipping blind swordsman Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, doing his best space-Zatoichi) and his assassin buddy Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen); and turned Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). And at least six familiar faces from earlier Star Wars films play small roles or make cameo appearances, just one reason why Rogue One will give die-hard Star Wars fans multiple orgasms.
Another reason can be found in the “Story by” credit, shared by Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) and John Knoll. Knoll’s name stands out, as this is the first writing credit for the prominent ILM visual effects supervisor. Although the screenplay credit belongs to Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films), Knoll’s placement emblematizes the film’s true raison d’être: to give us X-wings dogfighting with TIE fighters, stage laser-gun fights, and bust out everything from Star Destroyers to AT-ATs to, yep, a lightsaber. Rogue One runneth over with Star Wars spectacle.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except that Rogue One's foregone conclusion of a story would work better if it spent more time warming up the emotional connection to its characters and sharpening up its moral relativism—although the sunny theme of "a new hope" admirably comes at a price. The earlier Star Wars films retain an advantage over this one in letting the action breathe enough for us to feel we’re getting to know the characters (even when they’re empty vessels). In this respect, Rogue One feels a bit claustrophobic, and Jyn Erso a bit remote, in spite of her daddy issues and arc of moral awakening.
That last point—and the characters’ lack of our knowledge that their mission to steal the Death Star plans cannot fail—gives the film some weight. Here is a world in which taking a moral stance is imperative, a theme as evergreen as war itself (and politics, for that matter). If at times Rogue One is a movie so busy (and subject to such extensive reshoots) that it seems to have driven itself to distraction, it is also a film that sticks its landing, with a one-two punch of its climax (including Death Star mushroom clouds that help blur the moral lines of the WWII analogue) and resolution (Darth Vader getting a swift, kick-ass action sequence). (Silicon Valley audiences may, by the way, get an extra kick from knowing that even Rebels get frustrated by file sizes too big to transmit with ease.)
It's Star Wars, so it's graded on a curve, and it's unfortunate that Edwards' vision for the film appears to have been diluted by here-and-there corporate pandering. But let's face it: this is a movie to see—and hear—big and now. Add a stylish Michael Giacchino score (after John Williams), Edwards' eye for detail (rain spattering on a laser-gun sniper rifle), and the kind of expansive world-building production-design The Force Awakens ceded to pure nostalgia, and you get a Star Wars film that looks to the future while taking us once again to the “long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” past.