Sunday, December 18, 2016


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the eighth theatrically released live-action film in the Star Wars franchise. It is also the first of the “anthology” “spin-off” films that LucasFilm is planning to do to expand the scope of the franchise. The film tells the story of a group of Rebel spies who steal the plans to the Death Star and set off the events of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The film is directed by Godzilla-director Gareth Edwards and stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, and Alan Tudyk. This film was, in my view, a resounding success on many grounds and succeeded at breaking the mold and telling a fascinating and engaging story in a different way in the Star Wars universe!

The review that follows contains full spoilers for the film. Reader beware. You have been warned.

I should begin this by specifying how I came to this film. I am a massive Star Wars fan. It is my primary fandom, in fact. I read all the books, comics, and watch the TV shows included in the canon. I’m also happy to be critical where criticism is due. For this film, I did read the Rogue One prequel novel (‘Catalyst: A Rogue One Story’) and I will factor information I brought from that into my perspective on the film.

Rogue One is a brilliant take on the Star Wars universe from start to finish. From the very beginning I was locked in as we got a scene, set years prior to the main plot of the film, with Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and Galen Erso (Mikkelsen). These two are the prominent figures in the ‘Catalyst’ novel and seeing them hit the big screen and embody those characters as I believed they would be given the end of that book was a really special moment. For me, this showed a real commitment by Star Wars to telling a multimedia story and it got me locked in more than just about anything else would have. The moments of tie-ins to the rest of the canon, including Star Wars: Rebels cartoon characters, book characters, and characters from other films, were brilliantly handled and delightful as a fan. These moments did not work for everyone, and there was no way they could have. Is the “fan service” (to use a more derisive term) damaging to the film? As a general matter, I don’t think so. They enhanced my experience with the film so, as the reviewer, I credit this film positively for handling those well.

The best thing Rogue One did for everyone is tell an interesting story in an interesting way. This film is extremely engaging and continues to pick up momentum as it goes along. We’re set up with a Dirty Dozen-esque team as each member is quickly established in their character traits as they assemble into a team you care about and want to follow throughout this story. Whether it is Jyn Erso (Jones), the character with the most development, whose background and emotional state are drawn carefully and run throughout the film, or a simpler character like Baze Malbus (Wen), who starts in a place and has a slight emotional arc that really lands after the death of his best friend Chirrut, the characters are all brilliantly executed. The performances were all great and Diego Luna and Alan Tudyk as Cassian Andor and K-2SO, respectively, were the major standouts for me. The really impressive thing about the characterization in this film was that, despite the number of new characters, they were all given their due and had a moment to shine. Most ensemble films fail to achieve this. Rogue One succeeds, however.

The film really took its war film status to heart. It had moments of genuine heart pounding terror and intrigue. It didn’t shy away from risks, largely to its benefit. The primary of these was the choice to let all of the lead characters die in the process of recovering the plans and the surrounding battle. This made perfect sense for the overall story and is a real risk in a major blockbuster where we are so used to seeing indestructible heroes. Here, there is genuine sacrifice which, knowing the events of A New Hope, is for a meaningful purpose. It really drives a great emotional through line which improves the dramatic quality of this film. It also lacked the usual sheen of a Star Wars film which really worked given the subject matter. These risks paid off in a big way as they managed to make a film that can work for everyone.

I also thought that Michael Giacchino did a great job scoring this film. This was the first Star Wars movie to not be scored by the incomparable John Williams. Living up to that legacy is an impossible task in and of itself, but when Giacchino was brought on board late in the process and only had four and a half weeks to score the film it would be very easy for this to be a poor score, and a bad Star Wars one. It didn’t turn out that way. The theme he developed for Orson Krennic was a standout and the way the music was used to impact me emotionally during the climax was extremely effective. I can’t ask for more and I’m very pleased to have another great Star Wars score to listen to.

The final positive I want to note about the film is the entirety of the third act. It is absolutely everything one could ever want and it powers all the way into the finish. The ground battle is fascinating and intense, the process of getting the plans is highly creative and emotionally charged, and the space battle may be the best ever put to screen. The really brilliant thing about this was how seamless the transitions were. There were on-planet aerial battles and, instead of fast cuts, the film would frequently just pan from the ground battle directly into the aerial battle. This kept the pace moving along insanely well and made this film the brilliant work of art that it is. If those battles weren’t enough for you, Gareth Edwards decides to give us maybe the greatest scene in Star Wars history: Darth Vader straight up slaughtering people. The way this scene is photographed is stunningly incredible and is everything every Darth Vader fan, nay, every Star Wars fan, has wanted to see for years. It was worth it and genuinely incredible. Being several hours removed from my second viewing I still have that engrained in my mind and I suspect it will be there for a very long time.

This film isn’t perfect though. I thought there were a few clunky moments of dialogue, particularly in a scene at Vader’s Castle (yes, this film has Vader’s Castle in it, something I still can’t believe). There were also a few character introductions that were a bit hamfisted. Further, I felt that some of the risks they took didn’t pay off. The lack of a crawl was very noticeable in this film and their title card was atrociously bad. Finally, there are a few moments in the first act at Saw Gerrera’s hideout that were really strange and verged on too strange for a Star Wars film (particularly the weird tentacle monster). These were issues, but none were fatal to the film.

The final thing I want to talk about in this review is the bold step they took to bring classic characters to life using a combination of archival footage (for Red Leader and Gold Leader) and CGI performance capture (to resurrect Peter Cushing and Grand Moff Tarkin and to return Carrie Fisher to her younger years). The archival footage worked well and wasn’t all that revolutionary but was intriguing nonetheless. The performance capture work, however, was groundbreaking. Was it perfect? No. There is still a slight “uncanny valley” feel to both Tarkin and Leia, but the fact that they went for it and that it worked as well as it did is incredible. This shows me that in a few years we’ll be able to do this with relative ease and this is an important step in that process. Star Wars has always had a history of breaking new ground in visual effects and Rogue One really continues that tradition. These characters both worked well for me at the end of the day and felt well placed in the story.

Overall, I loved Rogue One. I think it is a step-up from the first effort under this new regime at LucasFilm (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and a truly great Star Wars films that generations of fans can enjoy as they delve deeper into the universe. This is a great film for fans, no question. But it’s just a great film generally. I was astounded by the product Edwards and company put on screen. Reshoots be damned, Rogue One is outstanding.

Ryan’s Score: 9/10

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  1. Thanks for this great review. I think you handled the film fairly, and I'm glad to find someone who also enjoyed the performance capture / CGI work they did with Tarkin and Leia.

    1. Glad you liked it and thank you for the comment! :)