Oh hey, look, a Star Wars prequel:
What could possibly go wrong?
Oh hey, look at this: a Star Wars prequel! Well hey, that’s a novel idea, huh? I have to say; I find the idea intriguing, since there have never been any Star Wars prequels…ever. Ever. They never happened.
Okay, jokes aside, with plans for a young Han Solo movie and a Boba Fett film in the works, we should probably get used to the idea of Disney farming the Star Wars universe for movie material in the form of prequels in their efforts to turn Star Wars into a Marvel-esque cinematic universe. Rogue One, for being the first, is gonna be an early indicator of how this will turn out. But is it a prequel worth seeing?
Taking place just before the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One’s plot follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Gailen (Mads Mikkelsen) is responsible for designing the Death Star we all know and love from A New Hope. The plot details Jyn and her rag-tag crew’s attempts to steal the plans for the Death Star and get them to the Rebellion.
Say what you will about the Disney machine and the rate at which they are cranking out these films, but there’s no denying that they seem to know what they’re doing when it comes to execution. Rogue One has all the polish and craft one has come to expect from any given Disney/Marvel film, visually satisfying and well-shot. Gareth Edwards, who directed the recent Godzilla film, shows off his chops as a large-scale action director, with the film’s big set pieces being excellently realized. Edwards has always had a keen eye for scale and conveying it on-screen, and it makes for some spectacular sequences and moments. It also helps that the film has a great approach to opening up the scale of its action: Rogue One has a very naturalistic escalation of action from small to huge, and it works perfectly. Rogue One is also very visually distinct compared to The Force Awakens, or indeed, any other Star Wars movie. It has a layer of grit and a sense of grounding to it that makes it feel unique, while still retaining the same sense of magic and adventure that made the original Star Wars films so memorable.
Rogue One also doesn’t lack for impressive visuals and visual effects, employing a nice mixture of practical effects and slick CGI. Of course while the digital effects more often than not look solid, there’s one very noticeable instance where they don’t quite hit the mark. Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the late Peter Cushing, has a side role in Rogue One, and digital trickery has been used to reconstruct Cushing’s likeness for the role. The result is sketchy to say the least: while it looks pretty good for that kind of effect, its still noticeably jarring and Tarkin has enough screen-time for that to become very noticeable, especially when he’s mainly interacting with characters played by actual people, and it made those scenes very jarring to watch.
Rogue One’s editing and pacing can also be a bit jarring: the first twenty minutes or so is a barrage of rapid information and constant cuts between what feels like a million different places that can feel overwhelming. The fact that the film’s editing and pacing evens out much more after just goes to illustrate how cluttered the movie’s opening is. The sensory barrage can also be felt in the film’s action scenes at times: the constant rapid cuts can get very tiring, and at times makes it challenging to actually keep up with what’s happening in action scenes. Rogue One also begins to feel its length quite a bit once the pacing evens out as well, and while it never veers into “boring” territory, the length at which certain scenes drag on can begin to wear on you after a while.
Plot-wise, Rogue One seems as about as straightforward as you can get really, competently executed and not really throwing out any particular surprises or do anything drastically different; the most controversial divergence is the fact there’s no opening text crawl. This isn’t so much a criticism as just pointing out that it’s unlikely to really shock or surprise you with anything it does. In fact, its only toward the film’s climax where there’s some actually interesting little plot diversions that, going along with the film’s feel and tone, make it seem unique amongst the other Star Wars films. It’s also worth mentioning that Rogue One takes an interesting approach to how it engages with the whole Galactic Civil War on a thematic level; actually presenting a few more shades of gray in the conflict that hasn’t been present in previous films, and it actually feels like the characters of Rogue One are in a true war, and not just playing war. While trying to present a slight less clear-cut conflict might put some off, I found this slight touch of nuance to be a positive development, and I’m hoping its something that’ll be kept up in future films.
Rogue One also loads itself up to the nines with crazy amounts of fan service. Practically every scene has something in it that any Star Wars vets will recognize, and even has incredibly crowd-pleasing cameos from some familiar faces. While this might make it seem like Rogue One’s overly pandering with its fan service, most of it is either incidental or in the background, so it never feels like its actually pulling away from the plot too much just to provide fan service.
Rogue One’s performances tend to range from solid to good. Felicity Jones delivers a strong performance in the lead role as Jyn, as does Diego Luna as Rebel captain Cassian Andor. Mads Mikkelsen and Forest Whitaker deliver suitably heart-felt performances, and make the most of their comparatively limited screen-time. Ben Mendelsohn’s turn, as the film’s major antagonist is a serviceable performance fit for a big action movie bad guy, but not too far beyond that standard. While the strongest overall performance is Riz Ahmed’s performance as Bodhi, the real standouts in Rogue One are Donnie Yen, who portray the mysterious monk-like Chirrut, and Alan Tudyk, who voices the repurposed Imperial Droid, K-2SO. Yen’s role is perfect for demonstrating the actor’s legit martial arts credentials, and his solo action scene is one of the best in the film by a wide margin, and indeed any of the film’s action sequences that involve him kicking someone’s arse. Tudyk’s incredibly dry, deadpan and ever-weary performance of K-2S0 proves to be absolute show-stealer, and he’s often the highlight of every scene, and by the film’s end, almost feels like its heart too.
Part of the reasons that the performances in Rogue One may not always hit the highs that one might hope for could be that it seems that most of the film’s characters aren’t given too much to work with at a script level. While most of the major characters get a reasonable amount of depth and fleshing out, some of the side characters are left severely wanting. This is especially true of Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus, who despite being in the majority of the film, someone gets next to no clear characterization at all. The result is that Rogue One’s cast of characters can often feel like a group of familiar ciphers instead of actual characters.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a Star Wars prequel to be proud of, or at least not despise with venomous rage and hatred. While it certainly has its technical and script foibles, the quality of craft in every aspect of Rogue One’s production, its exciting action set pieces, and some quality standout performances, and interesting thematic qualities tend to balance these flaws out. While Rogue One doesn’t quite hit the mark of true greatness, being another “solid good” Star Wars film after Force Awakens is keeping my hopes high for the future of the franchise.