Last year, The Force Awakens made a gazillion dollars but stayed safely within a well-defined box of characters and storylines. As I wrote a year ago, it was more or less the exact same story as Episode IV, updated, with a female lead and way too much acknowledgment of the past.
Rogue One takes no such shortcuts – it’s a bold tangent that neatly fits into the Star Wars narrative but takes the mythology in a whole new direction. And it’s obvious from the beginning – no rousing score, no text crawl, straight into the story – Rogue One goes rogue right from the start.
Make no mistake – this is not a kids’ movie. There are no cutesy Ewoks or I-am-your-father gamechangers, no yukking it up with Jar-Jar or cringing one’s way through atrocious young Anakin or over-CGI’d backdrops. This is a war movie, and if you’ve seen a war movie before, you know that even the happy endings aren’t too happy. And while you basically figure out how this one ends from the second you wrap your head around the story, the movie is tremendous and compelling. No camp. No comedy. No faux romance. Just a lot of action- a gritty, dirty, messy tale of rebellion and sacrifice. With a surprisingly high body count.
The plot is straightforward. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, or better yet, about 15 years before Episode IV, we find Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen aka Le Chiffre from Casino Royale), erstwhile Death Star chief designer, hiding from the Empire on the remote planet of Lah’mu. He is tracked down by uber-bad guy Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) who shows up with some Death Troopers (think Storm Troopers, but clad in black and a lot more lethal), kills his wife, and drafts him back into service to complete his work on the Empire’s ultimate weapon. Young Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) witnesses the whole thing, hides from the Death Troopers in a bunker, is rescued by friend-of-Galen and insurgent leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and we have all the context we need.
Fast forward 15 years and Jyn is doing time at an Imperial prison colony when her father sends word to Gerrera that the Death Star is nearing completion. A group of rebels frees Jyn, who is tasked by the rebellion with locating Gerrera on Jedha (yes, you hear Jedi in there) with the hopes of tracking down her father to authenticate the intelligence. Or to kill him. Or both. And since Jyn and Saw have a special connection, apparently only Jyn can get Saw Gerrera to give up the goods.
Since we last saw Gerrera, he has sworn off the not-extreme-enough tactics
of the Alliance and has been busy launching guerilla attacks on the Imperial forces on Jedha, who are there to harvest/steal/mine/appropriate all of the Kyber crystals from the ancient temple. Why? Because they serve as the fuel for the Death Star’s reactor and, if you can believe it, the power source for Jedi lightsabers. Cool.
In Rogue one, new planets abound as we galaxy-hop – Wobani, Jedha, Eadu, Scarife, and others, and they’re beautiful. Jedha is a haunting and beautiful desert planet, darker and redder than the brilliant white of Tatooine, Eadu is dark and brooding and wet and feels like the end-scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Scarife (filmed on the Maldives) gives us the tropical Imperial Walkers and some fascinating beach-camo storm troopers.
Along the way we meet a bevy of scrappy rebels who are a little cookie-cutter; I wasn’t too smitten with rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) or the Imperial cargo pilot-turned-rebel Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The best new character we get it is the fabulous and snarky K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a sassy reprogrammed Imperial droid that has not a few LOL moments as he is prone to blurt out whatever he is thinking, er, whatever is going through his circuits.
In this tale of war and darkness, there’s nary a Jedi to be found, and very little Force-ing, thanks to Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith, but there is plenty of Force allusion to go around. We meet two Guardians of the Whills – ancient protectors of the Kyber crystals – in NiJedha, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind martial-arts guru who takes down entire squads of Storm Troopers while maybe (?) benefitting from the Force, and his grizzly companion/protector Baze Melbus (Wen Jiang) who uses a laser-cannon that he lugs around and wields ferociously. But in this Star Wars story, no one other than Vader (who flits in and mostly out of the action) actually uses the Force, and except for Obi-Wan, who is still in hiding and is only hinted at, and Yoda, whose presence we can only infer, the Force is the proprietary knowledge of Vader and the Emperor.
Not that it matters. This is not a story about the Jedi, or the Force, it’s about the rebellion and an un-ending war, the mining and utilization of Kyber crystals, and ultimately an against-all-odds mission to steal, wait for it, a technical readout of the Death Star. And again, you already know if that is going to be successful or not.
We’ve got urban warfare a la Black Hawk Down, an imperial occupation and resistance to it that makes one ask questions about the moral limits of insurgency (if any) against an oppressive force, a lot of musing about giving up, or never giving up, and whole lot of reminders (three, I think) about how “rebellions are built on hope.” Look closely and you’ll see not just Mogadishu, but also a little Three Kings, Blade Runner, perhaps even some Maccabees, and a fair amount of occupation-and-occupied imagery that might make you squirm a little. If you weren’t wondering what AT-ST
walkers would look like if they were patrolling the Old City of Jerusalem, well, I was for you.
Ultimately the story turns, again, on the Death Star and the potential end of Rebellion, and the morality and value of keeping up the fight if defeat is a certainty. Should the Rebels continue to resist in the face of inevitable destruction? Will their sacrifices be for naught if the Empire will rule the galaxy forever? Is it time to give up? Is there still a chance to, in words of Gerrera, “save the rebellion [and] save the dream”?
Jyn’s affirmative answer to that last question is predictable, as is the fate of the band of brothers who accompany her to the ultimate battle on Scarife, but that makes the story no less compelling. In this alt-neu Star Wars story, the war is for real. The bad guys not only shoot, but they’re actually really
good at killing the good guys, especially the gunmetal-black Death Troopers, and as the final battle rages the body count grows and it seems like there really won’t be any winners in this round.
Perhaps that’s true, or just a metaphor that war is hell – always has been, still is, always will be. In this movie no one seems to enjoy the fighting, but fight they must, either as empire, occupier, insurgent, or rebel. People will die, the war will go on, and there is no end in sight, just an ongoing perpetuation of the status quo. After all, four movies later in this saga the battles are as fierce as ever and untold billions “just” died in The Force Awakens, but in Rogue One you’re on the ground as the bullets lasers are mowing down friend and foe alike. In another film you might be tempted to say you can almost taste the cordite – in this instance it’s more accurate to say you can smell the sizzle of the laser blasts.
Sorry, kids, there are no miracles in Rogue One – the good guys do not always win, nor do they always survive. There’s lots of death and violence, nothing to laugh or smile at except for K-2S0, and with very few distractions, Rogue One is simply a story of war, hope, and heroism. If you’re left with one thing it’s how, yet again, the fate of the free galaxies hangs by the slimmest of threads.
To be fair, Rogue One isn’t perfect. The characters are forgettable, the opening half hour is a tad jumpy, and the CGI characters are an unpleasant contrast to the rough and tumble graininess of the rest of the film. Beyond that, there are some unnecessary moments of speechifying, particularly when Jyn goes from zero to hero, or more aptly from new recruit into fearless and inspirational rebel leader in the blink of an eye, or when there’s a half-hearted attempt to weave in a Jyn/Cassian love angle, but no worries – somewhere on the editing floor were left pieces that may have made those more believable, in addition to a whole lot of bits from the trailers that didn’t make the final cut. Clearly the end product reflects the extensive reshoots and much-gossiped about final editing process that left people feeling nervous.
What we are left with is this film, though, which has masterfully given us a real first – a Star Wars movie for grown-ups. Perhaps it’s the Star Wars movie that you always wanted.
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