Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 12/17/16
Director: Gareth Edwards
Music: Michael Giacchino
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits

The Galactic Empire is building a terrifying new weapon called "The Death Star" which has the potential to destroy entire planets. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is one of the primary engineers on the project, and The Rebel Alliance wants him dead. But in order to find him, they need his daughter's help (Felicity Jones). Jyn Erso is a hardened and jaded criminal with no love for The Empire or The Rebellion, but she changes her mind and becomes a rallying force for the rebels after seeing a secret message that her father sent to a mutual friend. With a rag-tag group of battle-weary soldiers, Jyn leads a daring suicide mission to steal the architectural blueprints for the battle station and deliver them to The Rebellion, in the hope that they can find a way to destroy it.

Even before "The Force Awakens" (2015) came out, "Rogue One" was being touted as the "Star Wars" equivalent of "Black Hawk Down," so you know exactly what to expect. As the entire film is just a build-up to "A New Hope" (1977), nothing comes as a surprise, and yet, the film manages to astonish and amaze at every turn. This is truly a "Star Wars" fan film, crafted by and for people who have a strong love and deep understanding of the "Star Wars" universe and its rich mythology. It's the movie that fans have wanted to see ever since "Return Of The Jedi" (1983) came out. Whereas George Lucas wanted to distance himself from the source material as much as possible with his prequel films, "Rogue One" fully embraces the groundwork that was laid by the original trilogy. It's visually and viscerally shocking to see classic Stormtroopers and vehicles, and the film plays the nostalgia card extremely heavily. However, even though it painstakingly recreates the aesthetic of the original trilogy, it never feels like it's geeking out or pandering to fan service. Only in a couple of places do the in-jokes stumble and fall flat, but otherwise the world building is perfect and the dialog is smart and sensible. Even the humor is genuinely smart and funny, which is something Lucas could never get right. The film also features a couple of shocking cameos that are firmly entrenched in the Uncanny Valley, and while they don't entirely work, their inclusion is vital to telling and selling the story. Much like the rest of the film, they're not gratuitous or overplayed, and they simply exist as they should within the context of the story.

While I enjoyed the film immensely, it's not without flaws. It breaks bold new ground for the series, and while it definitely looks like a "Star Wars" film, it certainly doesn't feel like one. The first and most obvious difference is the lack of an opening title crawl, and even though Michael Giacchino's music score incorporates some of John Williams's original themes, the music is decidedly different and reflects a darker and grittier environment. The narrative is a bit of a jumbled mess as the film attempts to introduce the characters and get the audience up to speed as quickly as possible, and it takes the better part of an hour for the film to find its footing. But after that, you'd better hold on tight because the action is non-stop from there on out. The visual effects are stunning and seeing the classic vehicle designs back in action is simply breathtaking. The film makes excellent use of several clips from "A New Hope," which further solidifies the timeline and revisits the heroes of The Rebellion. While all of the digital trickery is extremely impressive, it sometimes brings too much attention to itself, which can break the suspension of disbelief. But that's just a minor issue. I suspect the film will be easier to digest on multiple viewings, as opposed to the appalling Special Editions which become worse every time. The acting is good, but none of the characters are particularly interesting or charismatic. However, seeing Darth Vader be a total bad-ass is something we've all wanted to see ever since "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), which is exceptionally satisfying. "Rogue One" sets the bar pretty high for the series, and I'm excited to see other adventures from the expanded "Star Wars" universe come to life. Han Solo and Boba Fett side stories are already in the works, and I hope they can match the same level of quality and seriousness.