True believers in the Star Wars Universe (SWU), rejoice! As you undoubtedly already know, since you probably saw it on opening night, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a handsome one-and-done addition to the canon. Gareth Edwards’ “filler” project is about 100 times better than George Lucas’ prequel trilogy (though that’s not saying much). It’s well-made and fun, and offers up a more-or-less persuasive explanation for one of the less believable tenets of the original movie, A New Hope: that the technologically imposing Death Star has a fatal weakness that could easily be penetrated by a hotdogging young pilot with the Force in his toolbox. It fleshes out the sacrifices that were necessary to smuggle this highly useful nugget of data into the hands of the rebels against the evil Empire.
Overall, Rogue One is a satisfying snack to tide over longtime fans to their umpteenth rewatch of the original series. But viewers who aren’t already obsessive Star Wars geeks may find it empty calories – and confusing to boot, which should not be the case in a story this morally simple. The first half of the movie grabs us by the arms and drags us at breakneck pace through a litany of embattled worlds while introducing us to a slew of new characters whose names are rattled off so fast that it’s difficult to sort out who’s who, which side they’re on and which faction just got clobbered in the last skirmish. (I kept hearing Saw Gerrera, the name of Forest Whitaker’s character, as a single word, but maybe that’s a side effect of living within 25 miles of Saugerties.)
At least there are factions this time – which sort of answers my speculations as to whether the nuanced moral ambiguity of the rebels in the Hunger Games saga would in any way influence the depiction of the SWU’s rebel alliance. A few characters switch sides, or feel conflicted in their duties, and there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of lip service to most of the fighters having engaged in some questionable behavior to further the aims of the rebellion. But mostly things shake out the way that they usually do in the black-and-white intergalactic fairy tale that Lucas envisioned, with characters making utterly unsurprising ethical decisions when push comes to shove. About the only really audacious storytelling deviation is the nearly all-encompassing final body count.
True fans, and people who prefer to parse the Forces of Good and Eeee-villl on a Manichaean scale, will likely find all this predictability comforting. Some things in the SWU never change: Those scary-looking Imperial Storm Troopers still have consistently terrible aim. Their bosses are all still identifiable by their Nazi haircuts. Imperial Walkers are still paragons of poor mechanical design and balance. There are still plenty of rubbery-faced aliens. Droids are still snarky and uncooperative – thankfully, as K-2SO’s (Alan Tudyk) quips and staredowns are Rogue One’s only funny bits. This viewer, for one, missed some semblance of the testy Han/Leia love/hate banter that gave the original series so much of its charm.
Anyone looking for a glimmer of political/topical significance in this flick will be disappointed. Like last year’s The Force Awakens, it has a female protagonist, which is admirable, with Felicity Jones putting in a solid performance as Jyn Erso. But also as in The Force Awakens, that female protagonist is depicted as a prodigy – dancing backwards in high heels in outer space, as it were. I only counted two female pilots amongst the rebels: twice as many as in the original series, but still not a hell of a lot of social progress. Ethnic diversity of casting fares far better, with the plucky suicide squad as multiculti as a bomber crew in a circa-1960 World War II movie. Chinese martial arts superstar Donnie Yen is particularly fun to watch in the underwritten role of the blind Jedi-wannabe Chirrut Îmwe; perhaps he’ll find more fertile Hollywood soil for his talents in a Doctor Strange sequel.
Visually, Rogue One strongly captures the grubby spaceship-junkyard aesthetic of the SWU. The various planets and moons visited have that look that feels simultaneously alien and homey, with the site of the climactic battle – shot in the Maldives – looking decidedly Floridian.
There are chases and gun battles and aerial dogfights enough to elevate the pulse of the average action-movie fan (though only one iconic unsheathing of a light saber). It would be too spoilery to say much about the film’s use of CGI to resurrect familiar-but-dead-or-much-older actors from the earlier series, other than to note that it’s as convincing as one might hope, given current technology.
But what works best at orienting the return viewer, arguably, is Michael Giacchino’s splendid score. It seamlessly reweaves John Williams’ iconic themes from the original series into a fresh-but-familiar aural tapestry that hits all the right dramatic beats and grounds the audience well, even when what’s unfolding onscreen is a venture into hitherto-unexplored territory. I probably won’t be buying the DVD of Rogue One, but I might just be tempted to spring for the soundtrack album.
To read more of Frances’ movie reviews, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyOne.com.