Review #2: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

Let’s get this out of the way – ‘Rogue One’ is the best “Star Wars” film since “The Empire Strikes Back”. Unshackled by the constraints of an episodic entry, the first standalone “Star Wars” film is free to paint outside the lines to a degree. The benefits of the standalone format are recognized early in the film as characters and story aren’t short-changed to benefit a future entry. This is it and the film knows it.

‘Rogue One’ captures the essence of “Star Wars” in a way that the prequel trilogy and last year’s ‘The Force Awakens’ simply failed to achieve. While the prequels suffered from sterile characters and a complete lack of emotional connections, ‘Force Awakens’ seemed to literally force a sense of familiarity upon filmgoers.

The ending results looked like “Star Wars,” but didn’t necessarily feel like “Star Wars”. ‘Force Awakens’ is not a bad film by any means, but for me it just hit the watermark of acceptably, without rising an inch above.

By comparison, the cup of ‘Rogue One’ overflows and Gareth Edwards succeeds where both George Lucas and J.J. Abrams faltered. This is a film that exudes pure “Star Wars” authenticity. Forgoing a traditional opening scroll, the film begins with a cold open. That’s just one of many stylistic changes the film utilizes.

For example, the film uses title cards to identify planets and incorporates flashbacks, both of which seem foreign in a “Star Wars” film. These new elements are jarring at first to be sure, but become more liberating as the film establishes itself.

Set just prior to the events of 1977’s original “Star Wars,” ‘Rogue One’ tells of the story behind the Rebellion heist of the original Death Star plans. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) serves as the film’s protagonist and the impromptu leader of a roguish assortment of rebels. Jyn’s estranged father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is the man behind the dreaded Death Star’s ultimate weapon.

Finding Galen and learning of the weapon’s true nature is the heart of the story. Of course, anyone not living in cave for the past 39 years knows how things ultimately play out. But the joy of ‘Rogue One’ lies more in the journey than the destination. Jones’s portrayal of Jyn is particularly strong. It’s also imperative to the story that the character is female; the film simply wouldn’t carry the same emotional weight had the character been male.

There’s a character shift that takes place fairly early in the film, one which Jones conveys particularly well. It’s here that the father/daughter relationship works in the film in a way where the overly familiar father/son motif would not. The rest of the cast are all excellent, with a couple of notable standouts. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is the Imperial commander tasked with bringing the Death Star online. Krennic is a superb villain, menacing and conniving. His uniform exudes the arrogance and bravado the character embodies.

Alan Tudyk’s performance of the droid K-2SO also gets high marks. K-2, as the droid is affectionately referred to, has genuine moments of humor and heart, quite a difficult task for a droid. While not simply copying previous noteworthy droids, K-2 stands out as unique, and more importantly, interesting.

The film also employs familiar characters, most notably Darth Vader, arguably the most iconic screen villain of all-time. Once again voiced by James Earl Jones, Vader’s inclusion is handled particularly well. While the film could have easily taken the fan service route and made Vader the lead antagonist, he’s instead used sparingly, though not too sparingly. Vader’s presence in the film seems just about right and adds significance to the film rather than serving as a distracting cameo.

Other familiar faces are sprinkled throughout, a few of whom are downright jaw-dropping in nature and best experienced without prior interference. This is an area in which ‘Rogue One’ handles exceedingly well, blending the familiar with the unfamiliar in a way that feels both organic and authentic. The film is filled with sights and sounds rooted in “Star Wars,” and are wisely stationed primarily in the background as opposed to be being obvious and forced. For instance, we overhear the monotonous chatter between two Stormtroopers just prior to a large-scale action sequence.

On a writing level, ‘Rogue One’ has passed though many hands, often an indication of a troubled production. The story itself is born out of an unproduced TV script by longtime Lucasfilm asset, John Knoll. Knoll shares a story credit with Gary Whitta, who was tasked to flesh out the script in the early stages. Shortly after Whitta’s exit, Oscar nominee Chris Weitz was brought on as the film’s screenwriter. According to sources, Christopher McQuarrie also had a hand in a quiet, uncredited rewrite just prior to filming.

The shifts in writing continued well after principal photography wrapped, as editor/director Tony Gilroy was brought on to write and supervise extensive reshoots which were meant to address several issues with the film, the final act being a primary target. The details of the reshoots are not known at the time of this writing, which is a good thing as they would only serve as a distraction.

The finished product now has Gilroy sharing a screenwriting credit alongside Weitz, a clear indication of the enormity of his contributions. Thankfully, the film bears no signs of a troubled production or awkward reshoots, and the seamless nature in which they were incorporated leads one to believe Gilroy’s involvement was more of a collaborative effort than a hostile takeover.

One casualty of the reshoots was the loss of original composer, Alexandre Desplat, who became unavailable with a pushed-back schedule. Disney and Lucasfilm turned to Michael Giacchino at the final hour, who had the unenviable task not only replacing John Williams, but having only four weeks to complete a full score. Giacchino delivered, and the musical score is one of the many joys found within ‘Rogue One’. Much like the film itself, the music resonates as pure “Star Wars”. The score channels cues from Williams, as would be expected, but also manages to create stand-out cues of its own. In a film with a variety of locations and scenarios, Giacchino manages to hit all the right notes.

Production designers Neil Lamont and Doug Chiang have managed to craft a visual pallet that needs to be fully appreciated on a large screen. The sets, vehicles and various other creations all feel deeply rooted in “Star Wars”. Familiar sets such as the interiors of the Death Star or the Rebel base of Yavin feel as though they’ve been carefully curated since 1977. The vast locations and environments all look real, lived-in and battle-worn. There’s a gorgeous climax to the film which is set in a tropical climate, offering a wonderful juxtaposition of war and paradise.

While exiting the screening of ‘Rogue One;, a feeling washed over me, one I had not experienced in a long time. A “Star Wars” film had thrilled my senses once again. Since the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’ in 1999, I have been conditioned to walking out of a “Star Wars” film wondering who to blame. Here, I found myself deciding just whom to praise first. Clearly Gareth Edwards gets a heft of credit as well as producer, Kathleen Kennedy and the aforementioned writers and production designers. Editors John Gilroy, Colin Goudie and Jabez Olseen also deserve mention, as the film is expertly paced. Combined with a terrific cast and score, the end result is nothing short of astonishing.

‘Rogue One’ is a gritty war film that pulls no punches. Providing a thrilling cinematic experience that feels genuine and authentic, it succeeds in capturing the essence of “Star Wars,” where prior efforts have fallen short. The bar is now set high for future entries both episodic and standalone alike. Whether or not future films bearing the “Star Wars” name can achieve those highs, we can only hope.