Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen and Forest Whitaker
Written by: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Run Time: 133 minutes
“The world is coming undone,” Forest Whitaker’s shattered Rebel intones towards the beginning of Rogue One. In a terrible moment of historic serendipity, it speaks deeply and profoundly to the circumstances we’re living in now. It thrums underneath every scene in the film, and the agreeable escapism on the surface never turns away from the kind of darkness we’re all grappling with.
And yet agreeable escapism it remains, with popcorn fun at the top of the list and a grand story serving as its foremost function. That it succeeds as well as it does bodes well for Disney’s efforts to expand the Star Wars saga beyond Episodes I-IX. It distinguishes itself from the other films in the series by adding a little more grit to the mix. The characters here are more compromised, the battle lines less clear. The heroes have done terrible things in the name of a righteous cause, while the villains believe with all their hearts that they work for peace. That rough logic feels right at home in our crumbling world, and as its heroine notes, it demonstrates how powerful a little hope can be.
That’s important because we all know exactly, precisely where this story ends. And with the outcome certain, it behooves Rogue One not only to give us compelling characters to root for, but to show us just how bleak things were before Luke Skywalker took his little joyride down that trench. The Rebels stand with their backs against the wall: desperate, exhausted and often losing sight of what they’re fighting for as the net slowly tightens. Confusion reigns on both sides as factions and misinformation clash against each other, and decision-makers need to make a call with key information frustratingly absent.
It makes for a hell of a mess, and until the very end, that certain outcome looks like anything but to the characters making it happen. Combat is terrifying and chaotic. People die from friendly fire. Opportunities arise out of screaming horror, and the protagonists often have nothing but the Force to guide them. Considering that none of them is actually a Jedi, their connection to that cosmic hum feels nebulous even at the best of times.
The politics on both sides comprise some of the film’s best moments. The Rebellion hears word of a “super weapon” developed by the Empire, but a vital piece of the puzzle lies in the hands of the militant Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) whose paranoia has driven him out of their camp. His former friend, engineer Galen Urso (Mads Mikkelsen), has been unwillingly drafted to help build this doomsday device, and the Rebellion needs Urso’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) to talk Gerrera into playing ball.
On the other side, Imperial Officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), in charge of the project, has a very different gun stuck to his head, with rivals circling (some of whom we know quite well) and an impatient Emperor awaiting his newest genocidal toy. Krennic acts out of fear just like his victims, and while we know his creation will endure past the closing credits, his own dilemma speaks to just how awful the Empire can be. Even its most loyal supporters are one mistake from annihilation.
The two familiar foes square off against each other, but the tensions within those camps highlight a strange symmetry. The guerilla rebels find themselves taking harsh steps to stay safe: jumping into bed with lunatics and cutting off loose threads with brutal finality. The Imperials, riven by internal plotting, jockey for position beneath their Emperor, and cheerfully eat their own at the first sign of weakness. Both look for hope in a galaxy of horrors. The only difference is that the rebels seek it for everyone; the Imperials seek it only for themselves.
That’s enough to set the story sufficiently apart from previous Star Wars entries to develop its own energy. Director Gareth Edwards adds another wrinkle to it. As he showed in his previous two films (2010’s Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla), the man understands scale as few others: an integral part of the Star Wars universe that needed his particular vision to fully realize. He shows us the horrified awe that comes with a Star Destroyer sliding out of the Death Star’s shadow, for example, or just how frightening an AT-AT can be if it points its guns at your tiny little form. That lends the action sequences a visceral edge, augmenting the perceived helplessness of the individuals caught up in it, and making their courage and conviction all the more striking in the face of the literal behemoths in their path.
Character, too, plays a large role, and like previous entries in the saga, good casting goes a long way. Jones displays appreciable pluck, as well as a stick-it-to-the-Man iconoclasm that sets her against her Rebel keepers as often as the Imperials she hates so much. Alan Tudyk’s scene-stealing droid K-2SO has already earned copious praise, while Wen Jiang’s surly sniper and Donnie Yen’s blind monk stand as pillars of calm amid the swirling chaos around them. The most interesting characters come from the most unexpected directions: Riz Ahmed’s shell-shocked pilot and Whitaker’s good man succumbing to the abyss he’s battled for far too long.
With all that in the film’s corner, it’s perhaps inevitable that the lack of dramatic weight might appear more obvious in contrast. The foregone conclusion bites it in the rear more than once, and delving too far below the surface ultimately reveals more variations of the same old good-guys-bad-guys stuff we’ve come to expect. That’s not necessarily a knock, but it does show a reasonable amount of wasted potential: settling for a good time when it had the chance to really push into something profound.
Some of the callbacks to earlier films grow tedious as well, as beloved figures are wedged uncomfortably into the action for the sake of a few cheap cheers. (I won’t go too deeply into that, since they’re intended as surprises, but the uncanny valley makes an unwelcome intrusion more than once.) This being a Star Wars film, we also see some of the series’ more obvious shortcomings on display: clunky exposition, characters who lean on archetypes a little too much, etc. And the plot itself resolutely fails to surprise, following the basic heist formula to the letter and moving more or less exactly in the direction we expect.
The Star Wars saga never quite escape such issues, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we should expect them by now. This series will always suffer from an excess of hype, no matter how good the resulting product might be. But greatness doesn’t always require perfection, and while Rogue One isn’t a great movie, it’s still a pretty darn good one. More importantly, it does honor to a series that has become more than just entertainment. Star Wars is part of our modern mythology, and the highest praise one can give this entry is that it richly deserves its place in the franchise. We forgive it its minor flaws quite readily; its assets are too strong to do otherwise. And if Disney fully intends to expand this universe beyond its core, Rogue One stands as fundamental proof of concept: a solid film with its own vision and tone, yet undeniably still a part of that wonderful galaxy far, far away.