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Film Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Warning: Spoilers below. Watch before you read!

The much-hyped linking story between the original and prequel Star Wars trilogies and first stand-alone film in the Star Wars Anthology series, Rogue One is another electrifying interplanetary clash between the dark, powerful Galactic Empire and scrappy, resourceful Rebel Alliance with a massively talented, excitingly diverse international cast featuring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, and Mads Mikkelsen. Jyn Erso (Jones), the female protagonist of Rogue One, is a lone wolf and ex-Rebellion soldier who was separated from her family at a young age and raised by the Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Whitaker). Jyn’s father Galen (Mikkelsen), a brilliant engineer, was taken unwillingly by the power-hungry Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and forced to construct the moon-sized, planet-destroying Death Star for the Empire. When Bohdi Rook (Ahmed), an Imperial pilot, defects to the Rebellion with information regarding Galen and the Death Star, Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Tudyk) are tasked with reaching Galen through a reluctant Jyn, who finds herself rejoining the cause against the Empire and ultimately bringing vital hope to the Rebellion.

Unlike the simpler, more light-hearted films of the original trilogy, the core Rebellion members of Rogue One are no longer cracking-wise or indulging in camaraderie á la Han Solo and Chewbacca but find themselves bound together as wary allies with conflicting ideals and motivations built on wide-ranging back-stories and experiences. Viewers get to see Jyn’s childhood and understand her isolation and her complicated relationship to her Empire-controlled father. Initially disinclined to work with the Rebellion or to even meet with her disappointing father figures (i.e. Galen and Saw), Jyn eventually takes on her father’s work and inspires others in the risky mission to retrieve the Death Star schematics and discover the weapon’s Achilles’ heel. Cassian, who proves early on to be ruthless and resolute in the fight against the Empire, seems unable to imagine life beyond the fight that he has been in since he was six, which makes him incredibly driven but flawed. He butts heads with Jyn many times because of their differing beliefs and closed off personalities. Chirrut (Yen) and Baze (Jiang Wen) are sort of along for the ride after their city is destroyed, lending their combat skills and firepower to the team. Finally, as two key characters with very little screen time, the quietly heroic Galen makes a great emotional sacrifice in order to take down the Empire from the inside while the fervent defector Bohdi switches sides due to Galen’s secret influence and a desire to find redemption. The Rebels view both these Imperial-linked characters with suspicion yet Galen and Bohdi soldier on with their work for good and cling resolutely onto their beliefs in face of hardship. Eventually, all these diverse characters (except for Galen who sets up the downfall of the Death Star but cannot execute it) do work together to achieve the near impossible, but their lives are all tragically cut short by the end of the film.

As enjoyable as Rogue One was as a war movie, and not just as a Star Wars blockbuster, it did have some minor flaws. The beginning was a bit chaotic as the story jumped from planet to planet in order to rush through character introductions (but would probably make more sense in re-watches). The plot was simple and mostly predictable, yet managed to feed bloated for most of the runtime. Some scenes and characters were under-served, mainly those of Saw and Bohdi whose interactions with Jyn had a lot of untapped potential for character revelation. The decision to change the dynamic between Jyn and Cassian to one of potential romance very late in the movie was ill-timed and unnecessary. (Perhaps, this is due to re-shoots and re-edits?) And Chirrut’s obsession with the Force was heavy-handed and quickly became atonal as the mysticism surrounding the Force did not suit the more grounded themes of Rogue One. In fact, there were many older Star Wars references shovelled in, creating one or two moments for the camera to linger on somewhat familiar faces that only die-hard fans would pick up. (I missed about half of the references, but there are lots of lists for Rogue One Easter eggs online.)

With an atypical Star Wars plot format where character arcs only stretch to one film instead of three or more, Rogue One takes on a much darker and more serious tone than previous Star Wars movies by leaning heavily on images and themes of war, activism, and political ideology. The Empire, long associated with the totalitarian Nazi regime, wipes out two cities with blasts from the Death Star, echoing USA’s dropping of two atomic bombs during World War II. Jyn’s involvement in the rebellion addresses questions of responsibility for outsiders who want to ignore the sufferings and destruction of war, such as what is currently happening in Syria. The extremist rebels under Saw protect a desert city from Imperial armed forces who strip a sacred temple of kyber crystals in order to fuel the Death Star, alluding to the oil conflict in the Middle East. Admittedly, these elements as well as the outsider status of most of the characters and less thoughtfully considered means and ends in Rogue One don’t quite coalesce into a cohesive message about war or politics, especially when mixed in with the set-up of the overall Star Wars universe, but they are intriguing storytelling choices.

But back to the best parts of Rogue One: the performances. The film doesn’t really delve too deep into any character, even Jyn, but the actors manage to bring out a sufficient amount of nuance. Most notably, Mikkelsen gives a compelling performance as Galen, especially affecting in hologram form as he reaches out to Jyn and makes abundantly clear, with a few words, the personal toll he suffered working under the Empire for 15 years while being completely separated from the Rebellion and his daughter. Jones and Luna were also excellent as conflicted and unlikely heroes, the dark horse rebels with a lot of inner turmoil going on underneath their stoicism. But the real scene-stealer was Tudyk as K-2SO who was the immediate crowd-favourite. His ad-libbed quippiness was the sole source of levity in an otherwise dark film. Others will be quick to point out Chirrut (who had one good reaction line out of being blindfolded), but his annoyingly upbeat and eccentric qualities overrode his humour. Anyway, Yen’s acting has never been his strong suit; he’s really there to kick Imperial butt. An assortment of other more solid actors, from Jiang to Mendelsohn to Whitaker, kept up the mature tone of the movie. Overall, Rogue One gives as much hope to the franchise as its characters gave to the Rebellion by taking worthy risks.

Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 4

Story: 4

Acting: 4.5

Dialogue: 3

Editing: 3

Visuals: 4

Music/Score: 4

Overall Average: 3.8

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