At long last, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opened around the globe the week of December 16th. Now that everyone’s had plenty of time to give it a first watch (or three), it’s review time!
It is a period of civil war.
Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have
won their first victory
against the evil Galactic
During the battle, rebel
spies managed to steal
secret plans to the Empire’s
ultimate weapon, the
DEATH STAR, an armored
space station with enough
power to destroy an entire
And there it was. Since 1977, Star Wars fans over the world have known, at least in broad strokes, what immediately preceded the brief but galaxy-changing space battle over Tatooine. Over the course of nearly 40 years since then, several stories have been told that purported to expand upon these three sentences. The 1981 Star Wars NPR radio drama penned by Brian Daley presented a gripping episode in which the Death Star plans were stolen by a rebel spy on the planet Toprawa, with Princess Leia’s consular vessel (identified here for the first time as the Tantive IV,) dropping out of hyperspace and feigning a hyperdrive malfunction while the plans were transmitted to Leia’s ship. Then in 1995 the classic first-person Star Wars shooter Dark Forces included a level in which the game’s protagonist, Kyle Katarn, infiltrates an Imperial base and steals the Death Star plans.
Now, with Lucasfilm Ltd. having chosen to drop all previous “Expanded Universe” stories from the ongoing Star Wars canon, we have a brand-new version of the tale of how the Rebels came into possession of the Death Star plans. At the same time, we also have the first of the interstitial stand-alone “Star Wars Story” films promised by LFL. So, after all of the hype and anticipation, how did Rogue One turn out?
After my initial viewing on Opening Day, my response to that question was, “Yeah, it was good, I liked it.” After seeing it a second time, though, I’d like to amend that assessment just a bit – I really love this movie!
Let me assure you, this isn’t a knee-jerk gush based purely on novelty (though it certainly may look that way in passing.) I had some real reservations about Rogue One after the first time I saw it, and often that means that my opinion ends up being more critical on subsequent viewings. So I was genuinely and very pleasantly surprised when I walked out of my second viewing feeling even more positive about the film. Yeah, there are a few rather glaring flaws which are always going to be there. But on the whole, Rogue One feels to me to be the most solid and consistently enjoyable Star Wars movie since 1980.
In many ways, Rogue One is a clear departure from Star Wars films as we’ve known them up till now. In other ways, it’s classic Star Wars at its very finest. The final third of the movie, in particular, features what may rank as one of the best space battles of the entire series. But Rogue One is certainly its own animal, perhaps more than any other Star Wars movie to date. Rather than indulging in the often self-conscious kid-friendliness that has marked many of the previous Star Wars films, Rogue One skews slightly in the opposite direction, with the more serious, often grim tone of the traditional war pictures that director Gareth Edwards has stated that he and the production team used as their inspiration. I won’t go so far as to say that this is a Star Wars film that’s JUST for grown-ups, but it’s clearly designed to appeal to older fans. There are no teddy bears with pointed sticks waiting in the wings to bail out the Rebel strike team this time around.
But it’s not just the more serious tone that I enjoy about Rogue One. Like the best Star Wars films, it’s also just a very fun movie to watch. No, there are no lightsaber-twirling Jedi (unless you count Darth Vader’s scene at the end of the movie), and none of the ongoing Skywalker family soap opera. And yet, it still feels very much like Star Wars.
That’s actually what struck me the most about my second viewing. Gareth Edwards managed to tie Rogue One very closely to the original 1977 film, and it’s not just the obvious “fan service” scenes that do it. It’s also the overall FEEL of the thing. No, it’s not a lighthearted romp through the “galaxy far, far away”, but in many regards neither was the original film – take away the one-liners, and it was mostly the story of average people thrust into an impossible situation against a bloodthirsty and seemingly unbeatable enemy.
And that’s what we have here in Rogue One.
As most of us now know, Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the Imperial scientist responsible for developing and refining the Death Star’s planet-killing laser, and a small team of freedom fighters who ultimately take it upon themselves to infiltrate an Imperial archive to steal the Death Star plans for the Rebel Alliance. Jyn has been on the run, living as a resistance fighter and petty criminal since her father was taken by the Empire and her mother gunned down in front of her, all when she was a young child. Freed from Imperial custody by Rebel agents, the Rebellion persuades Jyn to help them to locate her father, Galen Erso in hopes of somehow halting the development of the Imperial superweapon.
In classic war movie fashion, we’re introduced to an unlikely team of heroes throughout the film’s first act. Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is a young Rebel intelligence officer torn between his conscience and the questionable acts he’s had to perform on behalf of the Rebellion. His metallic companion, K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk) is a former Imperial security droid, reprogrammed by Andor to serve him and the Rebellion. Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is an Imperial cargo pilot who, desperate to redeem himself, has defected to the Rebellion, carrying vital information about the Death Star project. Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) are warrior-monks from the planet Jedha – the blind Chirrut initially appearing far more monk than warrior, with the heavily armed and spiritually disillusioned Baze as his bodyguard.
At the same time, we track the progress of Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the officer who oversees the Death Star project. Krennic, a mid-level Imperial official who aspires to become part of the Emperor’s inner circle, is driven (and ultimately undone) by his own insatiable ambition. He is also tied closely to Jyn Erso through Jyn’s father and Krennic’s old colleague, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) the engineering genius who has spent the past 15 years helping, albeit unwillingly, to design and refine the Death Star’s primary weapon.
It’s a fine lineup of characters, and the casting is exceptionally good. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Felicity Jones as Jyn and Donnie Yen as Chirrut, but the real standout for me was Firefly alum Alan Tudyk’s portrayal of K-2SO. The tall, lanky droid provided virtually every one of Rogue One’s admittedly limited number of laugh lines, largely through the conceit that Cassian’s reprogramming had left K-2SO with absolutely no social filters, with the result that he tends to blurt out whatever happens to come to mind.
This, coupled with the droid’s penchant for gallows humor, added the perfect amount of lightness to some of the film’s more serious moments without seeming overly frivolous. One particularly well done scene has K-2SO making a rather clumsy attempt to convince a squad of Imperial stormtroopers that he is taking Jyn and Cassian into custody. When Cassian tries to interject in an attempt to support the cover story, K-2SO backhands him across the face, with the improvised rejoinder, “And there’s a fresh one if you mouth off again!”
Aside from Jyn, we really don’t see a huge amount of character development in this film, although it can certainly be argued that Star Wars at its best has rarely relied on deep character study. Like the old-school war movies on which Rogue One is based, we learn just enough about each character to connect with them. The payoff for this comes during the third act in one of the true surprises of this movie – everybody dies.
Not the characters who carry over into the original trilogy, of course, but every last one of the new Star Warriors we meet in Rogue One sacrifices his or her life during the final battle to retrieve the Death Star plans from the Imperial archive on the planet Scarif. It’s an unexpectedly ballsy move, both for director Edwards and for LFL/Disney, to portray the theft of the Death Star plans as the suicide mission that logic has always suggested that (to me, at least) it must have been. I never expected them to go with such a dire outcome for the Rogue One protagonists, and I’m glad that they chose to do so – it results in an incredibly satisfying ending for the picture.
The deaths of our newly met heroes are made even more dramatic by the production team’s decision to stage those deaths against the backdrop of an Imperial-held world that more closely resembles a Caribbean paradise than the front lines of the Galactic Civil War. As Jyn and Cassian embrace for the first and final time on a white-sand beach as the fiery impact of the Death Star’s superlaser rushes inexorably toward them, it’s difficult not to imagine a vacationer sitting just out of frame, contentedly sipping a piña colada. The stark contrast lends an unexpectedly bittersweet undertone to the moment.
This juxtaposes brilliantly, in my opinion, with the triple-decker helping of fan service that Rogue One cooks up for us. Since the events of the film lead directly up to the opening moments of Episode IV – we’re talking minutes here – Gareth Edwards and his production team have gone to great lengths to create both visual and plot-based links to the original 1977 movie. Most of these links work very well, and some of them were downright jaw-dropping the first time I saw Rogue One.
Yes, we get X-wings, Y-wings, star destroyers (in their original Episode IV configuration, no less), TIE fighters, the Rebel base on Yavin… all of the cool little tie-ins to Episode IV that I think we all expected from the get-go. But then there are moments when you may as well actually BE watching the 1977 film. For example, Rogue One ends aboard Princess Leia’s blockade runner, the very first starship we see in Episode IV. But more than that, we see the same Rebel soldiers in the same teardrop-shaped helmets dashing to their stations down the exact same white metal hallway with the exact same red-alert klaxon blaring in the background that we see at the beginning of Episode IV, moments before Vader’s stormtroopers blast their way into the ship. It’s the kind of thing that only a shameless Star Wars geek like me (and probably like you) would flip out over, and the hair on my arms still wants to raise up at the thought of it.
I had the same reaction during the space battle over Scarif when the fighter pilots were reporting in and suddenly – there were Red Leader and Gold Leader from Episode IV. Not just their voices or actors dressed like them, but the same actors in 40 year-old outtake footage from the original Death Star attack, blended almost seamlessly with the rest of the scene. It was an ingenious little touch on Edwards’ part that not only added another perfect little visual link between the two movies, but which also caught me off guard enough on my first viewing that I actually did a double-take at the screen.
And then… there’s Tarkin. As most of you probably already know, Grand Moff Tarkin, commander of the Death Star as played by the late, great Peter Cushing, appears in Rogue One. A lot. I had somehow managed to avoid this particular spoiler until I saw the film on Opening Day. The initial over-the-shoulder shot of Tarkin had me thinking that maybe they would limit his appearance to a convincing sound-alike voice and indirect shots like this one. Then he began to turn around, and I thought, “Oh, interesting. I wonder who they got to play him.”
And there he was. Peter flippin’ Cushing himself, in the virtual flesh. Obviously, the guy has been dead for more than 20 years, so what I was seeing was clearly CGI. And yet, as I watched and waited for the wires to begin showing and for the initial impact to fade, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that they had done an unexpectedly slick job of digitally recreating the Tarkin character almost exactly as we saw him in 1977. And I thought that it served the story very well indeed. There were, of course, moments when the CGI didn’t quite capture all of him. His mouth movements weren’t always exactly spot-on, for example. But after seeing the movie twice now, I’d say they hit the mark by about 95% to 97%. It was certainly enough to impress me, even though I had gotten so thoroughly burned out on gratuitous CGI flash during the prequel trilogy.
The same effect wasn’t quite as effective during the last few seconds of the film when we saw our dear departed Princess (may she rest with the Force) as she appeared onscreen in 1977. Well… ALMOST as she appeared in 1977. I didn’t feel like they got her face quite as close to the real thing as they did with Tarkin, and perhaps part of the reason was that the shot of Leia was far more brightly lit than the Tarkin scenes were, thus showing off the rough edges of the CGI sculpt a bit more. But, overall, it was still a pretty well done effect, and that moment in the film has become even more poignant now that Carrie Fisher is gone.
Now, lest you think that I’m just gushing uncritically here, I have to admit that on Opening Day, it took me until about halfway through Rogue One to really begin to connect with it. Part of this was likely due to the tendency for the narrative to shift rapidly from planet to planet for the first half hour or so as key players were introduced and various plot points were set up. In retrospect, to a certain degree this harks back to films like Kelly’s Heroes and The Dirty Dozen, where a motley assortment of heroes is assembled during the film’s first act before being turned loose on the enemy in the second and third acts. But in Rogue One’s case it did make for a slightly hectic, vaguely disjointed beginning to the movie – the first time I saw it. The second time around, however, it seemed to flow quite a bit more smoothly than it seemed to have during my initial viewing.
I also have to say that not all of the fan-service scenes worked for me. There were a few “mugging for the camera” cameos that I thought felt shoehorned into the film. For instance, in one scene Jyn is walking down a crowded street on the planet Jedha and bumps headlong into the same two goons who try to pick a fight with Luke in the cantina scene in Episode IV. The pig-faced human of the two even responds to Jyn’s clumsiness with one of the exact same lines he gives in the 1977 film. A neat little idea, but it ended up coming across as a bit too “wink-wink” for my tastes, on top of which it left me wondering (while I should have been paying attention to the next couple scenes) why this pair of lowlifes happened to be on Imperial-occupied (and locked-down) Jedha a day or so before they ended up in that cantina on Tatooine, and about half an hour before the Death Star nuked the entire city. Personally, I could have done without that scene.
Likewise, Threepio and Artoo’s cameo. I love seeing those two as much as the next ol’ nerd, but their Rogue One scene just seemed too much like an afterthought. Placing them at the Rebel base on Yavin IV after the fleet had already left for Scarif hit a real klinker of a note for me, since the two droids should have been on Princess Leia’s ship, where we first meet them in Episode IV. I personally think it would have been far more appropriate and effective to have their cameo aboard the Princess’ ship right at the end of the film, with the Rebel troopers running past them and Threepio doing his trademark fretting about all the excitement. Perhaps Gareth Edwards considered it, but was concerned that doing it that way would pile too many Episode IV links into the film’s final moments.
Now, this one I’m sure a lot of folks will disagree with me on, but… “Saber Vader” just seemed too much like a “contractually obligated” fan-requested scene to me. Yeah, it looked bad-ass as hell to watch Darth Vader firing up his crimson lightsaber and viciously slicing up a hallway full of Rebel troopers, and it was a fun little moment in and of itself. BUT… it’s such a radically different tone from what we see of him less than an hour later at the beginning of Episode IV that I don’t believe that it’s going to wear particularly well for me in the long run, especially once I get this on Blu Ray in a few months and run it back to back with the original 1977 movie.
That said, I REALLY liked Vader’s first scene in the movie, especially once I realized that we were in Vader’s castle – something else that we’d never seen onscreen before. During my first viewing, one area where I’d felt that composer Michael Giacchino dropped the ball in the first half of the movie was in not using the ominous (and untitled) “villain theme” from the Episode IV score during Rogue One’s Imperial scenes. But then, as they drained the bacta tank and we saw who was in there… there was that exact musical passage! I was glad that Giacchino thought to work it into the score after all.
And overall, I thought the whole scene was very well done and gave us an excellent moment of interaction between Vader and Krennic, especially since it established Krennic’s tendency to overreach in his zeal to gain the Emperor’s favor. By the end of this scene, I couldn’t help but to see Krennic less as a classic movie villain and more along the lines of the feckless and ultimately doomed nebbish that William H. Macy played in the movie Fargo. Okay, so the Rogue One costume designer bricked it as far as what Vader costume pieces went over which other pieces, and Vader’s exit line was a rather Schwarzenegger-esque groaner of a pun. I still really dug that scene overall.
There was one other thing that made Rogue One take awhile to grow on me at first, and this was the fact that, with all due respect to composer Michael Giacchino, the movie just didn’t sound quite right. Close, but still just a bit off. And herein lies one of the few elements of Rogue One that I fear will always be a bit jarring.
For me, going all the way back to my first viewing of the original film in 1977, Star Wars has been at least 30% to 40% a musical experience. Imagine Luke watching the suns set on Tatooine without that sweeping version of the Force theme swelling in the background; Han being put into carbon freeze without that stirring take on Han and Leia’s love theme; Vader finally getting Luke to snap and attack him in the Emperor’s throne room without that goosebump fest of a strings-and-chorus piece driving the action forward. Star Wars has many scenes like that where, at least in my opinion, the music IS the scene.
I just didn’t feel that the Rogue One score had all that much of this. It worked somewhat better for me the second time, of course, and Giacchino is certainly a very talented composer in his own right. But to my ears this score just didn’t clear the bar that John Williams has set over the past four decades, and this sometimes ended up taking me out of the movie a little bit.
Now, I understand that Giacchino was given all of four weeks to compose the entire Rogue One score – a truly unenviable situation, particularly for a composer who is new to scoring the series. I also realize that the folks at Lucasfilm made an executive decision to try to set Rogue One and subsequent stand-alone Star Wars movies apart from the numbered “saga” films by dispensing with the classic main title theme and opening crawl, and by moving away from John Williams epic, theme-driven sound in favor of giving the film its own musical identity (with occasional nods to Williams’ ANH score.)
The problem with that, for good or ill, is that Williams’ bombastic leitmotif approach is and always has been a key ingredient in the Star Wars “special sauce”. And you just don’t go screwing with the special sauce after 40 years. Give the stand-alone films their own identity, sure. There are countless other ways to do that, and I think Edwards hit on a lot of them in ways that worked. But IMHO, the musical score is not the place to do that.
To be fair, I think there are a lot of decent pieces in the Rogue One soundtrack, and Giacchino did create a few very nice themes. He also worked some classic Williams themes into his score, which was great to hear. I’ll say it again, Michael Giacchino is an excellent composer. So why wasn’t I thrilled with his Rogue One score? I’ve had a few weeks to think about this, and also to listen to the soundtrack independently of the film, and I think I’ve got a handle on why I’m hearing it this way. If I might wave my ol’ freak flag for a moment here…
As an old Deadhead, people very often assume that since I love the Grateful Dead’s music, then I must also love the jamband Phish. I don’t. I respect what Phish does, but it’s not my cuppa joe at all. Yes, both bands stretch their music out into improvisational jams. But the Dead start with these great little songs and melodies, which are as much a part of what I love about that music as the exploratory journeys are, on top of which the band was also always very good at playing with dynamics. They could go from the whisper of a fingertip across a drum head to roof-raising musical armageddon and back, while visiting many different places in between. Phish, on the other hand, excellent musicians that they are, generally tend to focus more on pushing endless waves of sound at the audience, each more intense than the last. It’s a different musical sensibility entirely, and not one that has ever really kept my attention.
That’s what I feel about the Rogue One soundtrack. Where Giacchino isn’t quoting Williams, I’m hearing a lot of sustained dramatic chords and repetition of his three or so new major themes, but what I’m not hearing is much in the way of distinctive little secondary and tertiary passages with their own unique flavor and character. In short, I’m really missing Williams’ melodic sense here.
All of that being said, I think that Rogue One is a fantastic movie, and not just as a one-off, stand-alone picture. I realize that Lucasfilm is hell bent on establishing some sort of corporate “product differentiation initiative” between the stand-alone films and the numbered “saga” films, but in my view this is a huge mistake. Far from existing in its own parallel continuum, Rogue One, for all of its unique elements, feels to me to be as much a part of the ongoing Star Wars saga as any of the episodic movies.
Rogue One isn’t just “a Star Wars story”… it’s Star Wars!