One of the most difficult things for a franchise to do is to right itself after having somewhat gone off the rails in the eyes of its fans. When George Lucas first brought us Star Wars in 1977 he introduced something that did more than just take the entire world by storm. Lucas’ film is regarded by many as the greatest independent film (despite 20th Century Fox’s involvement), and Lucas himself, as the greatest independent filmmaker at that time. It touched off something that studios, both film and television, still haven’t quite figured out, and that is the validity of this specific type of science fiction genre, also known as “space opera.” At the time it touched off a whirlwind of bad (and I mean REALLY BAD) sci-fi being tossed out as if fans were nothing but birds and the studios were the ones with the breadcrumbs. They believed that whatever they tossed out would be eagerly eaten up. In some aspects they were right given the starvation fans had, but we wanted quality, and George Lucas knew that. The world was starving for more Star Wars, and after rebranding the first film as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Lucas continued to enthrall audiences with two enormously successful sequels. Unfortunately for some, that’s when the magic ended.
After walking away from the entire Star Wars franchise for 16 years (not counting TV shows, specials, and even special editions of the original trilogy), that fever he had created in 1977 started to come back with the anticipation of the first of the “prequel trilogies,” Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
And the world groaned.
Lucas followed up two more sequels and all of Star Wars fandom was left with a rather unpleasant taste in its mouth.
Then came the news that shocked the world. Disney bought Lucasfilm, and they hired J.J. Abrams to direct a new installment of the franchise called Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Force Awakens. Sadly, this ended up being probably one of the most divisive films in the entire franchise. While some fans heralded it as a return to what originally made Star Wars great, there were others who found it to be a poor regurgitation of A New Hope, with doing more than just nods to the classic film that started it all.
Now Disney/Lucasfilm has done something that had some people in fandom holding their collective breath. Instead of only focusing on the “big arc” of Star Wars films (which they are continuing with the untitled Stars Wars: Episode IX), they felt it was time to start telling original, “side stories” in the Star Wars universe. If it was good enough for authors to sell books that expanded the universe, then it was good enough for Lucasfilm to do the same, and the result is the first of these movies, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Set in a time just prior to A New Hope, this is basically all about the mission that is referred to in that first film, about how the Rebel Alliance came into possession of the plans for the Death Star. This is before the return of the Jedi, before the Alliance had scored any major victories against the tyrannical Empire, set in a time when there were only soldiers and freedom fighters just doing their own part, either individually or collectively, to resist against the Empire. All of the magic of The Force that we had seen from the Jedi had not yet returned to this galaxy. In other words, despite this movie being set in space and on other planets, it was essentially a World War II film. All of the elements are there. The Allied forces, in order to thwart a terrible secret plan set forth by the Axis, must go behind enemy lines in an effort to learn the details of the plan, stop the enemy from succeeding, and hopefully save thousands of lives in the end. Rogue One is that story! Yes, it has many of the elements that are trademarks of the Star Wars universe (the nods to A New Hope are absolutely brilliant and received lots of excited buzz from the audience), but from the moment the film starts with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” it takes an abrupt turn and reminds us that this is a different type of movie, and despite the constant elements that make it a Star Wars film, it establishes a tone that is uniquely different. This is considered to be a side-story after all, so this gives writers John Knoll, Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz, and Tony Gilroy, along with director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) an opportunity to not rely on past tropes with direction and story telling. They decided to create something new, but still tie it to all those things in the franchise that fans love so much!
The cast in this film is terribly exciting as there are some very notable names attached, starting with Felicity Jones (A Monster Calls) as our hero. This is a character with quite the developmental arc, and by the end of the film she is indeed a hero. Her portrayal by Jones is an example that young women, in the face of great adversity, can make an incredible, positive difference in the world. There is also Diego Luna (Milk, Elysium) as the slightly embittered, and very battle weary, Cassian Andor. Unlike some of the two dimensional rebel characters that we got from Lucas in his original trilogy, Luna’s performance gives us a very well rounded and fully realized character. He’s not just a rebel fighter in name. He’s also one in his heart and soul, and when he goes on a mission you begin to understand all that is at stake, even on a personal level.
Another great surprise is the presence of Academy Award winner Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) as rebel extremist Saw Gerrera. His presence doesn’t just give credibility to this film. What he shows us is the lengths that some will go to in order to fight an evil regime, and sometimes the terrible price that person must pay because of it. We also have Donnie Yen, a blind caretaker of an abandoned Jedi Temple, although he gives a performance that is reminiscent of Keye Luke from the TV series Kung Fu as the blind Shaolin Priest, Master Po. While not a Jedi himself, Yen’s character is a firm believer in The Force, and how it can help and be with people even if they aren’t Jedi.
It wouldn’t be a Star Wars movie if there weren’t a fun robot as part of the mix, and Alan Tudyk once again shows why he’s become the king of voice work. Just listening to him one wouldn’t recognize the voice and the manner in which he does the vocal acting, and Tudyk delivers lines in such a way that he almost passes himself off as the “anti-Threepio.”
There are some other small, but very notable and surprising castings in this film, of which I will only mention two. First there is the appearance of Jimmy Smits reprising his role from the prequel trilogy as Bail Organa, the Viceroy of Alderaan and father to his adopted daughter, Princess Leia. Then there is the character of Mon Mothma. In another brilliant move to tie this movie to the prequel trilogy, Genevieve O’Reilly was brought back to play the leader of the Rebel Alliance. O’Reilly had played a younger Mon Mothma for Revenge of the Sith, but sadly her scenes were left on the cutting room floor, although she can be seen in the Deleted Scenes if you own the movie on Blu-Ray/DVD. Given the numbers of years that are supposed to have transpired between that movie and this one, the age of her character, as well as that of Smit’s Bail Organa, make for a perfect fit in this movie.
There are quite a few appearances of characters already established in the Star Wars universe, but those come off as Easter Eggs. I have no wish to deny anyone the pleasure of finding those for his or herself.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is probably one of the most original films of the franchise since A New Hope first hit the big screens. Its pacing is original, its story telling is original, and in some ways, even the setting is original. Everything about it screamed at being a World War II film, and that is what made this movie so enthralling. By the last third of the film there were audience members who were quite literally sitting on the edge of their seats with anticipation and excitement. As for me, if I had the choice and the power, I would actually renumber all of the episodes and place this one firmly within the big arc movies. At the very least it should be called Episode 3.5 – Rogue One, but in my heart I will regard this movie as redemption, for while The Force Awakens was an entertaining film, Rogue One was a thoroughly enjoyable treat, and despite its uniqueness, it still manages to bring back all those things that made us fall in love with Star Wars in the first place.
This movie gets 5 out of 5 lightsabers!!!
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