John's Take: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

“You have taken your first step into a larger world”
-Obi Wan Kenobi

Episode VII was a no-brainer, even given the disappointment most felt with the prequels there was an immediate hope when Disney jump started the galaxy far, far away that, like Vader above the forest moon of Endor, our sacred franchise would be redeemed. J.J. Abrams made sure that hope was not unfounded and delivered Star Wars back to it’s rightful place at the top of iconic cinema. Even with it’s success venturing out into standalone films was always going to be a risk, a risk that was guaranteed to make money mind you, but one that could shake the recently restored faith in the brand name. With that in mind the decision to start these anthology films, which will continue next with a Han Solo film, with a story that fits right into the existing timeline was a smart move. It’s almost a cheat, a standalone film that can really be considered episode 3.9 as it’s end could almost seamlessly integrate with Episode IV: A New Hope. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (still think they should ditch that “Star Wars Story” bit for future films), follows a band of rebels as they try and steal the engineering plans for the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is captured by the rebel alliance and brought into service to help find her father, Galen (Mads Mikkleson), who is the lead scientist on the Empire’s secret weapons program. The mission to find Galen leads to a quest for the plans to the Death Star bringing us to view the epic adventure that, until now, was just a quick reference in the original film.

There’s truly something to be said for bringing on a filmmaker that not only knows the source material but has a real reverence, and really love, for it. Gareth Edwards directs Rogue One, and has never held back when talking about his affection for the Skywalker Saga. While interviewing him for Godzilla a few years back Edwards spoke to me for more then a few minutes about how much of an influence Star Wars was on him throughout his life. I found out first hand that day that no one gets an exclusive on a press tour, as I asked him directly if he was going to try and become involved in the new Disney Star Wars universe. At the time the standalone films were being rumored, he said that he didn’t think he could ever direct a Star Wars film, that he would be too intimidated. A week later he was announced as director for Rogue One. If I had any illusions about being important, they were gone after that, haha. I bring this up not only to name drop but to point out that Edwards is a fan, a true fan. Damn does it show. Rogue One is a fanboy’s dream that hits all of the right notes. The story is well crafted, emotional, and a perfect fit for the universe…but that’s not where it truly rises above, it’s the fan service. This is where most films drop into cheese territory but the cameos and inside references somehow feel completely organic no matter how random they may be. Things like Jyn literally running into the “I have the death sentence on 12 systems” guy that picks on Luke in the Mos Eisley Cantina feel like a natural occurrence. Seeing Jimmy Smits reprise his role as Bail Organa in the Rebel base on Yavin 4 (famously the setting from the climax of A New Hope) talking to Mon Mothma…there aren’t words to express what this means to a die hard fan, hell we even learn why Luke’s callsign Red 5 was available when he hopped into an X-Wing for the Alliance.  I know I’ve gone full geek on this one but there’s simply no way around it.

The film ends up being a showpiece for the advancement of CGI as it resurrects Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin for a fairly major part in the film considering Cushing’s been dead for over 20 years. Yes, it still hasn’t been perfected, it sometimes looks like a video game cut scene, (Leia in particular) and for someone with a lot of screen time, like Tarkin, there are moments that look off and creepy, but for characters only appearing for a few seconds of screen time the tech is amazing. It allows them to bring back un-named fan favorites like Red and Gold leader from Episode IV’s Death Star attack runs and really hammer home that this film leads right into another film from 35 years ago thereby enriching the experience…it’s the closest thing to magic I’ve ever seen.

The main cast cements themselves as memorable pieces to this ever expanding universe, in particular Alan Tudyk’s mo-cap droid K2SO who is the most human like droid we’ve seen yet. Personality wise he’s like R2D2 if his beeps and boops were words. That sarcastic flair must be shared programming for the R2 and K2 units. I realize I’ve spent almost no time talking about the live human cast up until this point, and that’s not because it would be unwarranted. Felicity Jones stands strong as the female lead, fitting perfectly in the realm of Star Wars’ history of strong females in Princess Leia and Padme Amidala. Donnie Yen, my personal favorite martial arts star, shines as non-Jedi force devotee Chirrut Imwe. Diego Luna’s rebel spy and team lead Cassian Andor plays the most important role, not just in the film but in how we view the rebellion. This film and his role in particular shines a light on the gray area in which these characters operate. We were always shown this world as good vs evil, that’s just too simple of a view and this is where Rogue One’s contributions to the Star Wars mythos really start to become known. Cassian personifies the dark alleys in which the rebellion has to operate, it’s quite eye-opening and honestly refreshing to see a take on this fantasy world that is so…well, realistic.

Add to all of this the best single battle in any of the films in the series to date and a 5-minute segment that FINALLY shows us just why Darth Vader was such a feared figure and you can easily tell why this film is going to have audiences everywhere on fire with excitement. Seriously, Vader isn’t in the film much…don’t go in thinking that, but in 5 minutes they manage to establish more about this legendarily powerful and evil character then all of the prequels combined (though I guess really only the last half of Revenge of the Sith was supposed to do that). I’ve seen quite a few reactions and for the most part they are spot on. The film starts slow, moves to heat up at a steady pace, then erupts into a third act that will have you bouncing with excitement in your seat. A perfect template for what these stand-alone films should be Rogue One has set the standard, now everyone else just has to live up to it!

5 out of 5 Guttenbergs