I’ve had a lot of people ask me variations on “How can there be any suspense within Rogue One if we already know how it ends?” But it became evident in the first few minutes of this Star Wars side-story (that brings us within mere minutes—maybe seconds—before the events of Episode IV: A New Hope) that although we know where it’s going to land, we know nothing of the journey it takes to get there. And the long-standing rumor about life is that the journey is far more interesting than the destination.
I’m guessing future stand-alone films like Rogue One won’t cling quite as closely to established storylines, but for this first outing, it seems necessary to introduce a whole new slew of characters into a scenario that is both new and still familiar. In the capable hands of director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla), the film tells us the tale of the groups of deeply devoted Rebels who managed to steal the plans to the original Death Star, which included a roadmap to the design flaw that was used in Episode IV to destroy the Empire’s planet-killing, moon-sized weapon.
In an opening sequence set several years before the main action, we meet four important figures in this story—Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, most recently seen in Doctor Strange), who it turns out is the primary architect of the Death Star; his young daughter Jyn Erso (played as a grownup by Felicity Jones), who manages to evade capture when the Empire comes to take her father back to the drawing board to finish what he started; Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the Imperial general who heads the construction of the Death Star and is hellbent on finding his missing architect and former friend; and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a friend of Galen’s who takes care of young Jyn and leads an insurgent group of fighters not officially tied to the Rebellion.
Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy practically slip a disc bending over backwards to make sure we know that Galen is not a bad guy here. He left the Death Star project to live the life of a family farmer because the work dismayed him intensely, and the only reason he returned to the job was to have the opportunity to devise a flaw that could destroy the weapon of mass destruction. Not only that, but he leaves clues for Jyn on how best to steal the plans, which seem fairly ambitious and more than a little nonsensical, since there’s no way Galen could have known she’d become a rebel, but we’ll let that go for now.
The real story kicks into high gear several years later when Jyn is captured by the Rebels in an attempt to get her to connect them with Saw, who apparently abandoned Jyn in the interim, for which she still holds a grudge. During the course of the mission to find Saw, we meet a bevy of interesting characters, including a Rebel soldier Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (a clear standout, voiced by the great Alan Tudyk), a towering, reprogrammed Imperial robot who has developed something of a smarmy personality and has no issues passive-aggressively insulting people he does not trust or like. Cassian becomes more interesting as a person as the story unfolds, and it becomes clear that he is among a small number of fighters chosen to do dirty work for the Rebellion, including strategic assassinations. He doesn’t like it, but he’s devoted enough to agree to do it, and adding a bit of tarnish to the squeaky-clean image of the “good guys” is one of the many reason the film works.
Others pulled into the group’s mission are Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who was tasked by Galen to deliver his message about the defect in the Death Star to Saw; Chirrut Îmwe (the legendary martial arts master Donnie Yen) as a blind, monk-like follower of the force; and his protector Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who wields a big gun, just in case Chirrut’s martial arts don’t quite do the trick. And while some characters get a bit more airing out than others, none are left tragically underdeveloped—a rarity for a cast this size. I especially liked Bodhi, who is clearly psychologically traumatized and terrified by his decision to leave the Empire, in a way Finn never was (although he should have been) in The Force Awakens.
Without going deep into plot details, I will admit to really enjoying the smattering of familiar faces that appear in Rogue One, not all of which I’ll mention, but a few have already been revealed. (This may qualify as Spoiler territory, so be warned). We get a clearer sense of what Bail Organa’s (Jimmy Smits, who appeared in the prequels) role in the Rebellion was. I particularly liked seeing Mon Mothma (this time played by Genevieve O’Reilly) back in charge of the Rebellion. And of course, Darth Vader returns, and there’s no getting around the charge you’ll get hearing James Earl Jones’s voice coming out of that mask. Vader even gets dialogue and an attitude that feels like sarcasm and bitchiness; it’s positively glorious.
Perhaps the most stunning surprise in terms of casting was the appearance of a CGI-created Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, who doesn’t just pop in for a second. He’s a fully realized character in this story, as he ought to be based on the plot being told, and he connives to take over the Death Star from Krennic by turning Vader against him. Is Tarkin undetectably rendered? Not exactly, but there’s no denying the thrill of having Cushing back on the boards in a Star Wars movie. That being said, I could have done without the completely unnecessary appearance of another, similarly generated, familiar character at the very end of the film.
And then there are the battle scenes, shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty, and the upcoming Lion) in an appropriately aggressive and brutal manner, as befitting a proper war movie, which Rogue One absolutely is. This is by far the most pure action we’ve ever seen in a Star Wars film, and although we’re spared blood and body parts, the film features a great deal of death and destruction, bodies flying through the air, and a couple of examples of the Death Star’s abilities at a lower power than we’ve seen to date, which, as it turns out, is still pretty devastating.
What’s more impressive is that like the fighting in World War II, there are battles being fought on the ground and in the air. While rebel ships are attempting to take out a shield gate in the atmosphere above a planet, foot soldiers (including our group of heroes) are attempting to get into the Empire’s document archive to get the plans for the Death Star and transmit them to the fleet above. Although she’s made a name for herself to date in period films and dramas like The Theory of Everything, Like Crazy, and the soon-to-be-released A Monster Calls, Jones is an absolute warrior in Rogue One, with a survivor’s instincts and a protector’s need to help others. Jyn’s qualities exist nicely beside Cassian, who also has grown tired to living in the shadows of the Rebellion and is in desperate need of doing some genuine good for the masses.
Boosted immeasurably by Michael Giacchino’s rousing score (with the occasional sampling of John Williams’ original work), Rogue One moves at a breakneck pace and pulls us in with visuals that are both awe-inspiring and very much grounded in reality, which makes it more possible than I’ve previously seen in a Star Wars movie to feel like you’re a part of the action (and I say that not having seen this in 3-D). The film is not just about being immersive but also about feeling embrasive (which is not a word, but you understand). I enjoyed this film as much for the few times it missed the mark as I did for the many things it got right, because it’s trying something different, even if it’s couching it in a setting we recognize. I’m sure upon further viewings, I’ll notice plot holes I can’t dismiss easily or decisions by characters that make no sense, but right now, I’m thrilled with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.