***** The following review contains big, fat, hairy spoilers all over the place. So, if you’ve not yet seen “Rogue One” and you don’t realize that it’s a prequel about the theft of the Death Star plans that leads to the battle station’s destruction as depicted in the 1977 “Star Wars” movie? Then I can’t help you (hehe) *****
Saw “Rogue One” last night, after a 8 or so hour wait in line for the ‘optimal seats’ at our local IMAX theatre. Yes, we bought our tickets ages ago, but we wanted those perfect center seats with the bars to put your feet upon. My wife and I (and our friend who went with us) are all pathetic nerds, yes, we know (see link below):
Now onto the movie. The first thought that struck me as the end credits began to roll was “This was the best Star Wars fan film ever made.” And that is not an insult. Fan films are films/videos made by fans for fans that are often distributed only on the internet for peer enjoyment and not mass profitability. Many of these efforts are crude, amateurish and embarrassingly stilted; others, like the Star Trek Continues fan films are astonishingly well done. “Rogue One” is in the latter category. Yes, it IS a big, uber-expensive, Disney-funded, fully-professional, international production but at its heart? “Rogue One” is very MUCH a fan film; made by fans primarily for the enjoyment of the fans.
The movie is steeped in references to Star Wars lore; such as the Kyber Crystals (first mentioned in Lucas’ original story drafts, as well as the 1978 Alan Dean Foster novel, “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”). We also hear the blessing “may the force of others be with you”; which was the longer version of ‘may the force be with you’ from earlier drafts of Star Wars. The title also gives a clue as to where the name of “Rogue group” came from; Rogue group was the phalanx of snow speeders led by Luke Skywalker in the battle against the Imperial walkers in “The Empire Strikes Back.” This movie suggests that their name was, in fact, a salute to the heroes seen in this latest film. That is precisely the sort of fill-in-the-blanks stuff done by the best fan films.
We also see offscreen events referred to in the original trilogy depicted in full glory, such as the theft of the Death Star plans, and the rebellion winning its “first victory against the evil galactic Empire” (as mentioned in the opening crawl in “A New Hope”). That battle serves as the stunning climax of “Rogue One” and it does NOT disappoint.
As for the new characters they are stoic, unexpectedly humorous and nicely delineated, if somewhat lacking in the silly charm and warmth of Rey and Finn in last year’s “The Force Awakens”; these guys are a (forgive the pun) rogue’s gallery of good guys. Star Wars’ answer to “The Dirty Dozen”; the guys behind the scenes of the rebellion who carry out the dirty work (terrorism, assassinations, etc) that Leia or Han or Luke could NOT do without risking audience sympathy.
We meet Jyn (Felicity Jones) daughter of reluctant Oppenheimer-ish Death Star scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), who is forcibly separated from her family (not too unlike “Force Awakens”‘ Rey) and after training by resistance fighter Saw Gerrera (a wild-haired/eyed, semi-bionic Forrest Whitaker) she is eventually taken into the Rebellion, who spring her from Imperial custody. She then meets up with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind force-mystic Cherrut Imwe (international martial arts star Donnie Yen, who is a standout), defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and K2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk), a giant, ‘Douglas Adams meets Sheldon Cooper’ tactical robot who was repurposed from the Empire by the rebellion. Needless to say, he is the movie’s primary comic relief… think C3PO in a terminator’s body, minus all tact. It’s a colorful and nicely international ensemble; a far cry from the primarily white bread American/British casting typically found in Star Wars movies.
The heist plot is a relatively simple one, and not a surprise since this is a direct prequel to “A New Hope.” The self-named “Rogue One” crew gather, look for clues about the whereabouts of Jyn’s dad, and eventually go ‘rogue’ on a suicide mission to steal the plans to the Death Star after realizing it is their only shot of stopping the formidable battle station. Along the way they encounter a TON of Star Wars fan service….
From Wikipedia: Fan service is material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience. The term originated in Japanese, in the anime and manga fandom, but has been used in other languages and mediums.
And Rogue One is chock full o’ fan service. Some of it is jaw-droppingly stunning, such as the seeming resurrection of the late Peter Cushing (1922-1994) who ‘returns’ (via seamless CGI and voice double Guy Henry) as the evil Death Star commandant, Governor Tarkin. We also see rebel leader Mon Mothma (played here by “Revenge of the Sith”‘s Genevieve O’Reilly; who had her part cut from the prequel and is used to great effect here), a fleeting end-of-movie cameo by a de-aged Princess Leia (looking only a teensy bit synthetic as Ingvild Deila utters her final foreshadowing line). I was similarly impressed by the use of pilots from “New Hope” seamlessly added digitally into the final attack on the Imperial base’s shield; it wasn’t entirely necessary, but it helped the movie all the more just for the effort. For good measure, there is even a brief cameo by R2-D2 and C3PO.
Best of all: a sizable supporting role by Star Wars’ big bad Darth Vader (still voiced by the almighty James Earl Jones) who, for the first time since “Empire Strikes Back” is truly scary again. His tenacity in the film’s climax as he tries to recover the stolen Death Star plans provides a good bit of fright, seeing his glowing red lightsaber ignite in blackness as he effortlessly destroys a squad of retreating rebels.
That hard won ‘first victory’ by the rebellion in the film’s climax throws everything but the kitchen sink into it; and it pays off beautifully. It has everything a Star Wars fan could ever hope for; perhaps too much so (?). Walkers, crashing star destroyers, squads of stormtroopers in pitched battle, you name it. This wasn’t a Star Wars movie made for the mass audience, but for us; those of us who’ve loved Star Wars for so long that it’s in our DNA. We hear the ‘force theme’ or the ‘Imperial march’ and we turn to jelly. It’s a Pavlovian response, and it’s as reliable as a sunrise.
Unlike George Lucas and his prequels (and I don’t want to get into an extended prequel-bash here), director Gareth Edwards (2014’s less-successful “Godzilla”) and writers Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll (FX artist too) and Gary Whitta obviously wrote and directed this from a place of genuine fan love. It’s arguable that perhaps they lacked the objectivity to make “Rogue One” a better standalone movie, but no matter: every once in a while, it’s nice to have a huge helping of Death Star-sized fan service too. I would NOT recommend this movie as one’s introduction to the Star Wars universe; it is not a full chapter, or even a complete Star Wars movie (no blast of fanfare, no opening crawl). It exists largely to fill in the gaps of other Star Wars movies, while introducing us to some previously unsung new characters as well. But make no mistake: This is a prequel done STRICTLY for longtime Star Wars fans, not to win over newbies.
May the force of others be with you…