Originally pitched as the Zero Dark Thirty of Star Wars, Rogue One had the potential to be the best film in the franchise. Approaching the material with a darker edge and an obvious ending, many questioned whether or not LucasFilm would actually pull the trigger. Not only did they pull the trigger, but they created one of the most intense sequences in the franchise’s history. The tale wears emotion on its sleeve while crafting a story of sacrifice and faith. To quote Hamilton, the characters were either going to rise up or die on the battlefield in glory. The strength of Rogue One is that both can be true.
Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young girl whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelson) built the Death Star. As the rebel forces discover the existence of this otherworldly weapon, spies Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) hope Erso’s connections to Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) may unite the alliance. Gerrera also holds an imperial turncoat Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) with specific information to find Galen and the plans to destroy the new weapon.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, the film deftly examines the darker side of the Star Wars galaxy in stunning detail. Scribes Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (who also directed extensive reshoots) create an emotional foundation to build the story and consistently add to the stakes. Our characters watch the destructive power of the Death Star early on, making it clear that failure will not be an option. They weave ties and ideologies through each character, creating a hodge-podge group of soldiers, men of faith, and spies. While the team bears a closer resemblance to a Final Fantasy team than any Star Wars ensemble, they find family at the edges of the galaxy.
Jones and Luna have never been better, even as their characters verge on cheese at times. Luna, in particular, sheds a somewhat divisive persona from other films, taking on the darker timeline version of Han Solo. There’s no question whether he shoots first, but you’ll wonder how far he’ll go to complete his missions. Jones gets to play up the cipher role, but her choices create real pathos.
Rogue One gets the benefit of featuring at least a half-dozen scene stealers that pull you into the story. While in a former holy city looking for Gerrera, the team stumbles upon a duo comprised of Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang. The two actors blow up the screen with their chemistry, but it’s their love for each other that shines brightest. Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe preaches about the force, and even though we’ve seen Jedi wield its power, none have held its emotional power in their hand. Yen remains one of the most compelling actors in the world and handing him this role remains a stroke of genius. Jiang’s turn could easily be overlooked, but he sells this film’s war story vibe.
The sly and strange K-2SO remains the biggest takeaway from the film. Tudyk embodies the strangeness through an excellent mo-cap performance. Fiercely loyal to Andor, Tudyk brings his comedy chops to a droid in ways we’ve never seen. His dry humor lands at every turn, and no droid since IG-88 felt so dangerous. Tudyk steals the whole movie from our main characters, becoming one of the most iconic pieces of the film.
Finally, the performances of Whittaker and Mendelsohn are off the charts bonkers. Each make absurd choices for their characters, but dialing it up to 1000 works in this story. To sell the heightened emotion and power of a one-off story, you need to be memorable. They both come through with spades here. Frankly, I want dozens of stories of these characters in their own spin-offs.
The final flurry of brilliance comes for the use of Darth Vader. James Earl Jones returned to voice the iconic big bag, and for the first time since A New Hope, we see his raw power. A standout sequence at the end of the film takes your breathe away, not only because of the brilliant sound work, but the glow of a single saber. This version of Vader was the one we begged for as an audience, and boy does it reward our patience.
While Edwards was replaced for the reshoots, the combined directorial powers on this one create a mostly singular vision. The cinematography provides many of the most exciting shots in the franchise (until The Last Jedi). The visual splendor of Rogue One often gets ignored, but few images can haunt an audience like The Death Star coming up over the horizon. Actually seeing the power of the station, and knowing there’s nothing to stop it, makes the symbol all the more terrifying. The cinematography from Greg Fraser and score from Michael Giacchino remain two towering aspects of this film and represent some of the best work in franchise history.
Ultimately, Rogue One does not work if the studio pulls out of the kamikaze ending. Yet the doomed voyage into the last act of the film creates the single best set-piece in all of Star Wars. From the moment the team makes it way to Scarif, we enter a war film. Death and sadness surround each step of the film, and we watch our heroes die in a valiant effort. For the first time in a long time, a blockbuster put its characters in moral peril. Rather than save them for the sake of blockbuster sequels, Rogue One fulfills on its promise. For the guts it takes to make a genuine war film in the Star Wars Saga, this one remains one of the most mesmerizing films of the decade.
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