Although May 4th is known the world over as Star Wars Day, many also choose to celebrate the popular, generation-spanning science-fiction saga on May 5th as a play on the word “Sith”. This can extend Star Wars Day into three day celebration of the influential science-fiction series and, as a result, is another great excuse for Star Wars fans to celebrate the beloved franchise in a variety of ways.
Released: 10 December 2016
Director: Gareth Edwards
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 to 265 million
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker
When construction of the Galactic Empire’s planet-killing superweapon stalls, military director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) coerces scientist Galen Erso (Mikkelsen) to complete the space station. Years later, Galen’s daughter, Jyn (Jones), is reluctantly recruited by the Rebel Alliance to retrieve a holographic message from her father that may hold the key to destroying the “Death Star” ahead of schedule.
In 1977, George Lucas brought the world Star Wars for the very first time with the release of Episode IV: A New Hope. Essentially a “space opera” in the style of pulp science-fiction serials like Flash Gordon (Stephani, 1936), Star Wars went through many drafts before becoming the influential sci-fi masterpiece we know and love today. Almost immediately, Star Wars became a phenomenon that inspired not just one generation but, thanks to multiple sequels and lucrative merchandising, numerous generations for years to come. In 2012, Lucas sold his lucrative franchise to Disney for a cool $4 billion who immediately began developing not just a whole new trilogy of movies but also a series of spin-off feature films to further flesh out the Star Wars saga. Envisioned a more of a grounded war film compared to the grandiose space adventure of the other Star Wars movies, Rogue One had an interesting development as numerous reshoots fundamentally altered several presumed aspects of the story. Upon release, the film went on to gross over $1 billion at the box office and became the second-highest-grossing film of the year; yet, despite receiving generally positive reviews, I often see a lot of people talking down about this film. For my money, it’s better than the entire Sequel Trilogy combined and probably my second-favourite Star Wars movie after Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980).
Rogue One was quite the experimental project at the time; foregoing many of the recognisable elements and tropes of the Star Wars saga (including the traditional opening crawl), the film filled the gap between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005) and A New Hope by telling the events that led to the Rebel Alliance acquiring the Death Star plans that kicked the entire saga in motion. The linchpin of this is Galan Erso, an Imperial scientist who, disillusioned with his work being used to subjugate and destroy others, walks away from the Empire in order to raise his daughter, Jyn, and live out his days as a simple farmer. However, when Orson Krennic arrives and murders Galan’s wife (Valene Kane) in front of him, Galan is forced to return to work in order to keep Jyn safe from Imperial reprisals. He spends the next fifteen years paying the role of dutiful, down-trodden subordinate to bring the Death Star to completion all while secretly including a well-hidden weakness into the space station and conspiring to deliver this information to the Rebel Alliance.
Galan isn’t in the film much but he’s an interestingly complex character thanks, largely, to the range and ability of Mads Mikkelsen, who commands the screen every time he appears on camera. Though the Rebel Alliance believes Galan to be a traitor and orders his assassination under the pretence of extraction, Jyn remains steadfast in her belief in her father’s morals, even more so when she views the holographic recording he made professing his true intentions and subterfuge. Jyn herself is a serviceable enough character; given when Rogue One was released, one cannot help but compare her to fellow Star Wars protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley) and, arguably, Jyn is the stronger and more interesting character as she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder, she isn’t immediately the best at everything she does, and she is largely more interested in her own survival rather than getting swept up in the rebellion against the Empire. Her outlook changes after reuniting with her surrogate father, Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), and viewing her father’s message; after seeing the lengths her father went to to deceive the Empire and keep her safe, she does an almost immediate about-turn and is all for fighting for hope, however small, rather than emotional, misdirected rebellion. A competent and independent female character, Jones is believable enough at portraying an “Everywoman” character but is, perhaps, a little lacking in her delivery of certain lines and feeling like a truly organic piece of this universe. Compare her to Cassian Andor (Luna), for example; little more than a war-weary assassin of sorts, Andor is a bitter and pragmatic individual who may not like having to get his hands dirty for the Rebellion but is willing to do so since he is 100% committed to their cause.
There are many layers to Andor’s character as he executes a friend and fellow Rebel (Daniel Mays) without hesitation rather than risk them getting caught and is more than willing to do the same to Galan until Jyn’s passionate plea causes him to question himself. Eager to atone for the blood he has shed in the name of the Rebellion, Cassian willing volunteers himself for what amounts to little more than a suicide mission against the Imperial garrison where the Death Star plans are being held and switches his allegiance just as fully to Jyn’s rogue team of Rebels. The Rebels are directly opposed by Orson Krennic, played with delicious relish by Ben Mendelsohn, who makes an immediate impact with his beautiful, clean white Imperial garb and Mendelsohn’s superb ability to steal every scene his in, chewing scenery at every opportunity to portray Krennic as a sadistic, ambitious, and self-serving scumbag. Krennic’s pride and joy is the Death Star, which was the product of his own design and direction, and he is driven to near desperation to ensure that the space station remains under his control and that credit is given to him and him alone for its unmatched power. This brings Krennic into direct opposition with Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry/Peter Cushing), who openly talks down to Krennic and then immediately takes full credit for the Death Star after witnessing a mere fraction of its power. The digital effects used to bring Cushing back to life through Tarkin are impressive, if unavoidably noticeable; I can’t help but think it might have been better to either feature the character sparingly, in shadow or as a distorted hologram, or simply cast Mendelsohn in the role. The effect works but some scenes are better than others and it gets more than a little disturbing and perturbing when the character continues to crop back up again and again.
While Krennic is sent into a desperate frenzy to tie up all the loose ends that might keep him from receiving his full recognition, his efforts are continually disrupted by the remainder of Jyn’s little band of misfits: while meeting with Saw in the remains of a Jedi Temple on Jedha, Jyn and Cassian successfully rescue Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), the pilot who carried Galan’s message, and hook up with the blind quasi-Jedi Chirrut Îmw (Yen) and his friend and bodyguard, of sorts, Baze Malbus (Wen). These three characters have more personality and are more likeable than the majority of the emotionally-stunted cast of the Prequel Trilogy; Bodhi is a quirky, almost neurotic pilot who acts largely as the film’s comic relief (something its bleak tone really needs at times), Chirrut is a shadow of the Jedi’s former power but no less bad-ass for it, and Baze is a hulking and devoted protector who wields a kick-ass chaingun-like laser rifle. As great as these characters are at stealing little moments and injecting personality into their roles to make the most of their screen time, they (and almost every other character) are completely overshadowed by K-2SO (Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid who acts as Cassian’s co-pilot and partner. K-2SO is a snarky, blunt, hilarious character who isn’t shy about sharing his feelings with others; I imagine that K-2SO is probably what R2-D2 (Kenny Baker/Jimmy Vee/Ben Burtt) would sound like if he could talk, just this rude, smart-mouthed droid who begrudgingly helps his allies out but always seems like he’s been put out by it. It’s truly a film-stealing inclusion and something I didn’t expect heading into Rogue One given that droids in the Star Wars saga were generally quite polite or (dare I say it…?) robotic until K-2SO.
I mentioned earlier that Rogue One’s tone is bleak and don’t misunderstand me: It is a bleak film but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing; it recalls the same against-the-odds atmosphere of The Empire Strikes Back and is in stark contrast to the usual adventurous and peppy feel of the saga. It’s a testament that I find the film’s bleak ending to be so affecting considering that there really wasn’t any need to kill off all of he film’s protagonists; just because we don’t see them in other Star Wars films doesn’t mean they couldn’t have survived and, arguably, given that Cassian eventually got his own Disney+ spin-off prequel series, they probably should have so that further media could have been produced to continue their story behind (and between) the scenes of the main Star Wars saga.
Still, it hammers home the overwhelming odds that the Rebellion faces against the Empire and their new Death Star and really helps to further flesh out just how stacked the deck is against the Empire in the other films. When Jyn and the others break away from the Rebellion to find the plans, they know that it’s most likely going to be a suicide mission but are nevertheless committed to seeing it through even in the face of incredible odds. It seems, for a brief moment, that they may actually have a fighting chance as not only does the Rebel Alliance arrive for some much-needed backup but they have the advantage of surprise and even manage to successfully broadcast the plans to the Rebels despite Krennic’s best efforts. Still, it’s all for naught; having assumed command of the Death Star while Krennic was out chasing his tail, Tarkin doesn’t hesitate to use a small fraction of its power to decimate the Imperial garrison as the first official demonstration of the Death Star, thereby erasing Krennic’s legacy and replacing it with his own. In that white-hot flash of fire and destruction, however, the spark of hope survives thanks to the sacrifices of Jyn, Cassian, and their friends as the Death Star plans are successfully intercepted by Princess Leia Organa (Ingvild Deila/Carrie Fisher), effectively ending the film right where A New Hope begins.
Of course, things aren’t as simple as all that; not only do the Rebels have to contend with the Imperial ground troops, walkers, and TIE Fighters, countless Rebel soldiers are cut down by the vicious swings of Darth Vader’s (Spencer Wilding/Daniel Naprous/James Earl Jones) lightsaber. Despite Jones’s voice obviously sounding noticeably aged and gravelly, Vader’s inclusion is one of the film’s biggest highlights; not only does he come across as a subtly intimidating presence when Krennic meets with him on Mustafa, the end scene where he cuts down Rebels without any mercy, quarter, or compromise is, perhaps, the most ferocious and brutal we have ever seen the character onscreen. It’s as though his uncharacteristically subdued portrayal in A New Hope was hiding this caged animal just waiting to be unleashed and it really helps add to the tension and desperation of the film’s final scenes.
Despite the praise Rogue One received upon release, I feel as though the film is unfairly overlooked and forgotten about in favour of near-endless debates about the Prequel and Sequel Trilogies. People generally talk about Vader’s dramatic and merciless slaughter and the digital recreations of classic Star Wars actors while failing to acknowledge all of the other strengths the film has. With is bleak and gritty tone and aesthetic, Rogue One really helps to sell you on the desperation and futility of the Rebel Alliance’s efforts against the all-powerful Empire. They are outnumbered and outgunned at every turn, fighting and scratching and clawing for any advantage and this often means performing less-than-noble tasks in service of gaining just a slither of ground against the Empire. Uncompromising and original in its execution, tone, and direction, Rogue One deserves to be talked about with the same level of reverence as The Empire Strikes Back for helping to flesh out a previously-unknown story in the Star Wars saga and adamantly hammering home its message of the harsh realities of war.
What are your thoughts on Rogue One? Did you enjoy it for its more bleak direction or did it, perhaps, fail to live up to your expectations for a Star Wars film? Do you think that some or all of the film’s characters should have lived or do you agree that it makes a far lasting impression to see them all die to facilitate the Star Wars saga? What did you think of Darth Vader’s inclusion and the digital resurrection of classic Star Wars actors? How are you celebrating May the Fourth this year? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below and go read my other Star Wars reviews!
Great review of Rogue One! It’s refreshing to read a positive take on the film, which often gets overshadowed by debates about the prequel and sequel trilogies. The author does a great job of highlighting the strengths of the characters and the film’s tone, and makes a convincing argument for its importance in the Star Wars saga. Overall, a fantastic rating and insightful read.
Thanks so much, I definitely feel it deserves more time in the spotlight.