by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
A STAR WARS STORY
Years after she watched her mother fall and her father, military scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), be lead away at gunpoint by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), intergalactic fugitive Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is stunned to learn her father has sent her a clandestine message via Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Currently being held by violent extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), Jyn's former mentor and protector before their falling out, it is suggested by Rebel commander Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly) the young woman return to the besieged planet of Jedha and discover what her father has gone to so much clandestine trouble to say.
Joined by surreptitious operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial combat droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Jyn is shocked by what she learns. Turns out, Galen has been instrumental in completing the weapons system for a planet killer dubbed the Death Star, and right under the Empire's nose he's managed to build in a fatal flaw that will allow the Rebel Alliance an opportunity to destroy it before the machine can become operational.
Problem is, they need the plans, and those are stored in a secure Imperial facility halfway on the other side of the galaxy. Worse, a number of the Rebel leaders are too terrified of this new Death Star to risk an open assault, tying Mon Mothma's hands to the point she's powerless. Jyn, aided by Cassian, Bodhi, K-2SO, blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), grizzled gunman Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and a handful of fellow die-hard soldiers itching for a fight, hatches an impossible plan. With their help she'll break into these Imperial archives and steal the plans, and no matter what the cost she'll make sure her father's desire to see this weapon destroyed comes to pass.
Taking place immediately before the events of the 1977 classic Star Wars, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first in a proposed series of side tales taking place inside George Lucas' universe set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla), working from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) and a screenplay written by Chris Weitz (Cinderella, About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity), this is as big a major surprise as anything released this year. Tough, hard-as-nails and refusing to just get by on the goodwill generated from last year's Star Wars: The Force Awakens or coast on the nostalgia generated by the original trilogy (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), Edwards and company brazenly refuse to bow to convention, and in doing so craft a motion picture that proudly stands on its own outside of the stories and characters that have become a cherished part of movie history.
Not that it doesn't utilize knowledge of those characters or that history to its advantage. Even with the inherent prequel drawback of knowing how things must turn out otherwise the next chapter cannot come to pass, Rogue One still manages to weave in a number of figures from the original Star Wars in increasingly imaginative ways. While the trailers and commercials have already hinted at an appearance from Darth Vader, he's not the only Death Star stalwart to have substantial screen time. The moderately creepy nature of the visual effects and CGI required to bring this character to life aside, there's some superb writing as far as a certain Grand Moff is concerned, the film cementing his status as one of the most formidable villains in Lucas' universe with wicked clarity.
But the main reason the film works as well as it does is that Edwards and his crew treat the material like they're making a hard-hitting WWII epic in the vein of Battlefront or Attack, only also one mixed with the likes of The Dirty Dozen, The Big Red One and Where Eagles Dare, a healthy dose of Platoon and The Thin Red Line thrown in for good measure. This is a gritty film, one where the stakes for these Rebel fighters is never in doubt, the lengths they all find themselves willing to go to achieve even the smallest victory equally so. The climactic battle sequences are jaw-dropping in spectacle and in effectiveness, the level of intensity exceeding almost everything else inside the Star Wars cinematic canon.
Yet it is the characters who make all of this work. They are all complicated and none of them are perfect. In the case of Cassian, he's a spy, a dangerous assassin who will do whatever it takes to see the job is done and his orders are carried out, his hands so dirty he's positive he'll never be able to wash them clean. Chirrut, a true believer connected to the Force but not a Jedi, has fallen to being a con man and a mystic, eager to get back on the path of the righteous when he comes in contact with Jyn. As for Baze, he's a bad man who kills with dispassionate ambivalence. But he's equally connected to Chirrut in ways going well beyond friendship and brotherhood, the two sharing a bond that borders on romantic.
But the same could be said for everyone here, as no one is perfect or entirely pure, and even if the cause they are all fighting for is worth their collective efforts what they've done to see that the Rebellion continues to survive doesn't sit easy on any of their collective consciences. This includes Jyn, a woman who has seen the worst the Empire can dish out yet at the same time has also viewed how fighting for what one believes in can be perverted into something nearly as horrible as the evil you're trying to stamp out. Her faith has been shaken, practically destroyed, and it isn't until the full weight of her father's message dawns on the youngster that she remembers how valuable this resistance can be and how important hope is to the future freedom of planets throughout the galaxy.
Featuring an international cast the likes of which no Star Wars film has seen before, Jones is a strong, resilient anchor, grounding things with a fully committed performance filled with depth and moving dramatic tenacity. Luna is equally terrific, a late scene where he tries to come to grips with the evils that he's done in the name of fighting for something greater than his own moral well-being tenderly profound. Ahmed is also wonderful, as is Whitaker, especially early on, Gerrera's crazed interrogation of the perplexed Bodhi eerie in its unhinged immediacy. As for Mendelsohn, he's a fine bad guy, his Director Krennic a power-mad plutocrat who yammers like a petulant child yapping for respect from a parent who pitilessly refuses to give it to him.
As wonderful as they all are, it's the trio of Tudyk, Wen and especially Yen who steal the show, each bringing to life characters that will likely go down as three of the best ever to grace a story set in the Star Wars universe. Yen, in particular, is a wonder, Chirrut a fascinating figure whose complexities astonish. The actor's chemistry with Wen is virtual perfection, their interactions bringing me to tears as the film neared its conclusion as these two Chinese superstars went above and beyond in order to make sure their moments connect as fervently as possible.
Edwards is no stranger to spectacle; both his previous features proved that. Here, however, he also remembers the human elements, and while the edge is a hard one that doesn't mean he doesn't allow the heart at the center of it all to beat with passionate determination. Even so, he's not above staging some stunning sequences, and from the tropical beach firefight that reminds one of the D-Day opening to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, to a final handoff that allows a familiar figure to utter the word that will guide the first three films in the original Star Wars trilogy, moments big and small amaze. Edwards' best trick, though, might be how he utilizes the ultimate big bad, Darth Vader, seeing this terrifying demon unleashed to his full murderous potential as scary and as shocking as anything I could have imagined it would be beforehand.
If Disney and Lucasfilm are intent on bringing more of these types of side Star Wars stories to life, here's hoping they follow this template in the future. With Rogue One, Edwards doesn't attempt to redo what has come before, isn't interested in any already established template. He and his team have crafted a film that exists inside a known universe yet still manage to plant their own idiosyncratic stamp upon it. This is a marvelous piece of entertainment, as wondrous as anything I've seen in 2016, and here's my wish the powers that be allow filmmakers just as much latitude to make something great as they have done here going forward.
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