“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” (2016) Review
When I had first learned of Disney and Lucasfilm’s plans to create a series of stand-alone films within the STAR WARS franchise, I felt a little taken aback. I had felt certain that the new owners of the franchise would stick to a series of films that served as one chapter in a long story. But following the 2015 release of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” and my slight disappointment over it, I was willing to accept anything new.
“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” was announced as the first of a series of those stand-alone film. However, I found this ironic, considering that the plot for “ROGUE ONE” more or less served as a prequel to the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. The 2016 film’s plot centered around the Rebel Alliance’s discovery of the first Death Star and their efforts to steal the very plans that served as a plot incentive for “A NEW HOPE”. Upon contemplating the movie’s plot, it occurred to me that Disney/Lucasfilm could have re-titled the movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – ROGUE ONE” and change the title for all of the films that followed chronologically. Especially since “ROGUE ONE” seemed to have a major, major impact upon the narrative for “A NEW HOPE”.
Actually, “ROGUE ONE” begins with a prologue set thirteen years before the film’s main narrative. Research scientist Galen Erso and his family are discovered to be hiding out on the planet Lah’mu by Imperial weapons developer, Orson Krennic. The latter wants him to help complete the Death Star, which had began construction several years earlier. Although Galen instructs his wife Lyra and daughter Jyn to hide where they can be found by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera, Lyra instructs Jyn to hide and tries to rescue her husband from Krennic. Unfortunately, Lyra is killed, Galen is escorted away by Krennic and a squad of death troopers and Jyn spends the next few years being raised by Gerrera.
Thirteen years pass when Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook defects from the Empire in order to smuggle a holographic message from Galen to Gerrera, now residing on the desert moon Jedha (where the Empire is mining kyber crystals to power the Death Star). Rebel intelligence officer Captain Cassian Andor learns about Bodhi’s defection. He frees Jyn, now a minor criminal in her early twenties, from an Imperial labor camp at Wobani. He brings her before the Rebel Alliance leaders, who convince her to find Gerrera and rescue Galen so the Alliance can learn more about the Death Star. While meeting Gerrera on Jedha; Jyn and Cassian become acquainted with Bodhi, who is Gerrera’s prisoner; a blind former Guardian of the Whills named Chirrut Îmw; and Chirrut’s best friend, a former Guardian of the Whills-turned-freelance assassin named Baze Malbus. While Jyn and the others escape the destruction of Jedha’s holy city by the Death Star and head for Galen’s location on Eadu, they are unaware that Cassian has been covertly ordered by Alliance General Draven to kill Galen after confirming the existence of the Death Star.
I noticed that the media tend to describe the plot for “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” as a mission for a group of rebels to steal the Death Star plans. And yet . . . after watching the film, I noticed that “theft of the Death Star plans” story line did not really kick in until the last thirty-to-forty minutes. Most of the film seemed to be centered on the Rebel Alliance confirming the existence of the Death Star. By shifting the actual attempt to steal the Death Star plans to the movie’s last act, Gareth Edwards and the film’s producers may have undermined the actual narrative surrounding the mission. It seemed . . . well, it reminded me of Luke Skywalker’s plans to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt in 1983’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” – confusing, a bit lame and out of left field. It also struck me as a bit rushed. I also found the major battle over Scarif during the heist of the Death Star plans a bit too much. I thought it was unnecessary to include it in the movie. Since the opening crawler for “A NEW HOPE” had made it clear that the Rebel Alliance had won its first major battle against the Galactic Empire, while the plans were being stolen, I can blame George Lucas instead of Gareth Edwards. So now, the movie is a . . . what? I do not know. Perhaps I had been expecting a Star Wars version of a heist film. Or an espionage film that did not a major battle. Instead, I found myself watching a movie that seemed to have more than one kind of narrative.
I had a few other problems with “ROGUE ONE”. Once the movie had moved past the prologue regarding Jyn Erso’s childhood, the narrative rushed. At breakneck speed. It rushed from Cassian Andor’s meeting with an informative on a planet whose name I do not remember, to his rescue of Jyn Erso from an Imperial prison transport, to Bodhi Rook’s disastrous meeting with Saw Gerrera and finally to Jyn’s meeting with the Rebel Alliance leaders on Yavin. Once Jyn, Cassian and the latter’s companion – a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2SO arrive on Jedha; the movie slows down to a tolerable pace. I also had a problem with the movie’s prologue – especially the circumstances surrounding Lyra Erso’s death. I am still wondering why she had believed she could save her husband from Orson Krennic and a squad of death troopers with a blaster. Was she really that stupid? Or did the screenwriters simply found a lazy and contrived way to kill her off?
“ROGUE ONE” also featured the appearances of a few characters for fan service. C-3P0 and R2-D2 were briefly shown at the Rebel Alliance base on Yavin before they were supposed to be aboard the Tantive IV. Their appearance struck me as unnecessary and forced. Speaking of the Tantive IV, what kind of transport did Bail Organa used to return to Alderaan? Especially since the corvette was his personal transport and his adoptive daughter, Leia Organa would end up using the ship for her mission, later on. I was very surprised to see Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba, the thuggish pair who had harassed Luke Skywalker in “A NEW HOPE”. This pair had bumped into Jyn and Cassian on the streets of Jedha City. Considering that an hour or two later, the Holy City was destroyed by the Death Star, I found myself wondering how they had avoided death in order to reach Tattoine in time to encounter Luke and Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in “A NEW HOPE”. I eventually learned that the pair had left Jedha just before the city’s destruction. Okay . . . but why include them in this movie in the first place? It was unnecessary. And their presence in the movie nearly created a blooper within the saga.
“ROGUE ONE” also featured the return of the Death Star commander, Grand Moff Tarkin and a young Leia Organa. Since Peter Cushing, who had portrayed Tarkin in the 1977 film had been dead for over two decades; and Carrie Fisher was at least 58 to 59 years old when the movie was shot; Lucasfilm had decided to use CGI for their faces. Frankly, it did not work for me. I feel that Lucasfilm could have simply used actor Guy Henry to portray Tarkin without pasting Cushing’s CGI generated image on his face. They could have done the same for actress Ingvild Deila, who briefly portrayed Leia with Fisher’s image. Honestly, the CGI images of the two characters reminded me of a video game. A relative of mine had pointed out that both had a “dead in the eyes” look about them.
And yet . . . despite these quibbles, I still managed to enjoy “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” very much. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I did Disney’s other entry for the franchise, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The movie’s narrative seemed very original in compare to the 2015 movie. Of all the STAR WARS movies I have seen, it seemed more like an espionage flick than any other in the franchise. And like the Prequel Trilogy, “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the last act of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”; “ROGUE ONE” seemed willing to explore the ambiguity of its characters and its plotlines.
This especially seemed to be the case for characters like the ruthless Rebel Alliance General Davits Draven, Alliance leader Mon Mothma, the extremist Rebel freedom fighter Saw Guerra and one of the main characters – mercenary Baze Malbus. Forest Whitaker had been cast to portray former Clone Wars veteran and Rebel freedom fighter, Saw Guerra; who had served as Jyn Erso’s guardian following her mother’s death and father’s capture. I noticed that Whitaker, who seemed to have a talent for accents, had utilized a slight West African one to portray Guerra. However, I was more impressed by Whitaker’s portrayal of the imposing Guerra as a slightly withered soul, whose years of political extremism and violence had left him physically disabled and paranoid. I really enjoyed one scene in which Whitaker conveyed Guerra’s fear that his former protegee, Jyn, had sought him out to kill him. Alistair Petrie did an excellent job in combining both the commanding presence of General Draven and his ruthless ambiguity. After all, this was the man whose sole reason behind the search for Galen Erso was to have the latter killed. Genevieve O’Reilly had portrayed the younger Mon Mothma in 2005’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, but her scenes had been cut. Eleven years later, she returned to portray the same character. Only in this film, O’Reilly’s former Senator Mothma who is nearly rendered speechless by Jyn’s revelation about the Death Star. O’Reilly did a first-rate job in portraying a Mon Mothma never seen before. Yes, she behaved like a leader. However, O’Reilly got the chance to convey some of Mon Mothma’s uncertainty about the Alliance dealing with the Death Star. I realize that some of you might find it odd that I would list Baze Malbus as one of the movie’s more ambiguous characters. He really did nothing in the movie to hint his ambiguous nature, considering that he spent most of his time coming to the aid of his friend, Chirrut Îmwe or their companions. But I noticed how actor Jiang Wen skillfully conveyed Baze’s cynical personality and reluctance to play hero and get dragged into the rebellion against the Empire.
If there were two characters that truly reflected the movie’s moral ambiguity – namely the two main protagonists, Jyn Erso and Captain Cassian Andor. Since the age of eight or nine (I think), Jyn has endured a lot by the age of twenty-two – the loss of her parents via death and capture, being raised as a Rebel fighter by an extremist like Saw Guerra and eventually abandoned at age sixteen, and life as a petty criminal (which included the occasional prison incarceration). It is not surprising that by the time the Rebel Alliance had recruited her, Jyn had become a cynical, wary and slightly ruthless young woman. And Felicity Jones did one hell of a job in bringing her to life. This is not surprising. Jyn Erso was such a complicated character and Jones was talented enough to convey this aspect of her. Cassian Andor, an intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, had experienced a hard life since the age of six. His homeworld of Fest had joined the Separatists during the Clone Wars. This means that Cassian has been fighting for twenty of his twenty-six years – first against the Galactic Republic and later against the Empire, after he had joined the Rebel Alliance. Cassian shared Jyn’s ruthlessness. In some ways, he is a lot more ruthless and pragmatic than her. And unlike Jyn, Cassian is a dedicated warrior, rebel . . . and loner. But unlike her, he was also a very dedicated warrior and rebel. It seemed very apparent to me that those years as a freedom fighter had not only transformed him into a loner, but almost into another Saw Guerra. And Diego Luna gave a brilliant performance as the ruthless and pragmatic Captain Andor. I have only seen Luna in two other roles, but his performance as Cassian Andor was a revelation to me. Perhaps I should check out some of his other work.
“ROGUE ONE” featured other interesting performances. Donnie Yen gave a very charismatic performance as the blind former Guardian of the Whills priest, who believes in the Force. I must also add that I thought that as a screen team, both he and Jiang Wen seemed to be the heart of the movie. Another interesting performance came from Alan Tudyk, who provided the voice for K-2SO, the former Imperial enforcer droid reprogrammed to serve Cassian and the Rebel Alliance. Jimmy Smits gave a charmingly brief performance as Alderaan’s senator and royal prince, Bail Organa – a role he had originated in the second and third Prequel movies. He and O’Reilly enjoyed a poignant moment on screen, as they discussed the possibility of requesting the help of none other than former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Riz Ahmed gave a very memorable performance as the very man who helped Galen Erso kick start the events of this film, former Imperial shuttle pilot turned diehard Rebel, Bodhi Rook. Whether being scared out of his wits by Saw Guerra or enthusiastically supporting Jyn’s scheme to steal the Death Star plans, Ahmed’s Rook seemed to be a bundle of raw energy. Speaking of the Erso family . . . Mads Mikkelsen gave a very poignant and sad performance as Galen Erso, a brilliant scientist who willing helped the Empire complete its construction of the Death Star following the death of his wife and his daughter’s disappearance. Before one can label Galen as another one of Mikkelsen’s villainous roles, he turns out to be an unusual hero who surreptitiously gives the Rebel an opportunity to destroy the weapons station . . . before he is betrayed by them. The movie’s main antagonist; Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military; was actually portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Krennic proved to be something different as far as STAR WARS villains go. Mendelsohn did a first-rate job in conveying Krennic’s murderous tendencies and raging ambition. At the same time, he did a great job in allowing Krennic’s inferiority complex to crawl out of the woodwork . . . especially when in the presence of the domineering Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin or the very intimidating Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader.
Many have claimed that “ROGUE ONE” is either the darkest or ambiguous film in the STAR WARS franchise. I do agree that the movie is ambiguous. Most of the main characters were not portrayed as dashing heroes or idealistic heroines who made little or no mistakes. With the exception of a few like Bodhi Rook, Chirrut Îmwe, Bail Organa and Orson Krennic; the movie featured some very ambiguous characters . . . three of them being Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and Saw Guerra. I was especially impressed by how screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy portrayed Jyn Erso. Instead of feisty heroine or someone who is ridiculous ideal, they had portrayed her as a young woman who had aged before her time, due to the hard knocks she had experienced. A few STAR WARS fans had complained that Jyn’s reason for going after the Death Star plans had not been motivated by some kind of patriotism or ideal. Someone even went so far as to criticize her for not being some leader or a person with “special” abilities. Personally, I am glad. With the exception of Rey, who proved to be a little too perfect for my tastes, I had no problems with the saga’s other lead women characters. I liked that Jyn could not give a rat’s ass about the Rebellion. I liked that she felt a great deal of anger toward the Rebellion Alliance for what happened to her father. And more importantly, I am glad that her decision to go after the Death Star plans was based upon a personal reason – to finish what her father had started.
But what I had found even more interesting were the screenwriters and Gareth Edwards’ willingness to shine an unflattering light on the Rebel Alliance. Looking back at the Original Trilogy’s portrayal of the Alliance, the latter came off as an organization governed by morally upstanding and brave people. Perhaps a little too shiny or a little too . . . “good”. Not so in “ROGUE ONE”. One example of their moral ambiguity was featured in a scene in which the Alliance political and military leaders expressed reluctance and fear to do something about the Death Star, let alone continuing with the rebellion. Despite my annoyance at the “town hall” style meeting, I must admit that I enjoyed watching the Rebel Alliance leaders express their flaws and fears. I was also fascinated by how the filmmakers – through the Cassian Andor, Saw Guerra and General Draven characters – reveal how low the Rebel Alliance would sink for its cause. This was especially apparent through Cassian’s murder of a Rebel informant and Guerra’s paranoia, which led to his torture of Rook Bodhi. However, General Draven’s orders for Cassian to assassinate Galen Erso, along with his second plan regarding the scientist really conveyed the ugliness of the Rebel Alliance. And I loved it.
But is “ROGUE ONE” the “darkest” or most ambiguous of the eight current films in the STAR WARS saga? Personally, I believe that honor still belongs to the 2005 film, “REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Yes, “ROGUE ONE” was willing to convey the more unpleasant sides of its main characters. Then again, I could say the same about the Original and Prequel Trilogies. Especially the latter. And yes, “ROGUE ONE” was willing to reveal the uglier sides of the Rebel Alliance. Although I cannot say the same about the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy seemed very ambiguous in its portrayal of both the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order. But I cannot regard “ROGUE ONE” as the saga’s most ambiguous film. Despite the mistakes and crimes committed by many of the film’s protagonists, the theft of the Death Star plans and the Battle of Scarif pretty much provided redemption not only to the movie’s protagonists, but also the Rebel Alliance. One cannot say the same for the protagonists from the Prequel Trilogy. Nearly all of them, along with the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order, suffered the consequences of their mistakes and crimes . . . for years to come. There was no last minute redemption for the by the end of “REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Perhaps that is an ending that certain moviegoers could not swallow, especially in a STAR WARS movie.
I have no memories of Michael Giacchino’s score for “ROGUE ONE”. None whatsoever. David Crossman and Glyn Dillon’s costume designs earned them a Saturn Award nomination. Personally, I did not see what the big deal was about. I will give Crossman and Dillon credit for creating the right costumes for the movie’s characters and setting. Otherwise, they almost strike me as a rehash of John Gallo and Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ work in the Original Trilogy. I felt somewhat impressed by Doug Chiang’s production designs – especially for the Jedha City and Scarif sequences. His work was enhanced by Greig Fraser’s photography. Speaking of the latter, I noticed that Fraser’s photography of the Jedha City streets brought back memories of Gilbert Taylor’s photography of the Mos Eisley streets in “A NEW HOPE”. Both settings seemed to possess a similar lighting and atmosphere as shown in the two images below:
The Maldives served as a stand-in for the planet of Scarif, location of the Death Star plans and the movie’s major battle. Between Chiang’s production designs and Fraser’s photography, part of that sequence brought back memories of various World War II movies set in the Pacific Theater:
In the end, I rather enjoyed “ROGUE ONE”. There are some aspects of it that struck me as very original – especially in its characterization and its portrayal of the Rebel Alliance. Yet, at the same time, its plot and setting made it clear to me that the Disney Studios and Lucasfilm are still chained to some kind of nostalgia for the Original Trilogy – a nostalgia from which I feel they need to break free. And although I feel that the movie possess some flaws in its narrative, I still believe that it proved to be first-rate in the end.