Movie Review — Relevant, Grounded and Visceral, ‘Rogue One’ is the Prequel We Deserve

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After only a year later of coming off the high of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Gareth Edwards’ (Godzilla, Monsters) Rogue One faces the task of living up to both the original trilogy and The Force Awakens. A standalone film set in-between the prequels and the original trilogy, Rogue One is a unique project that doesn’t follow the same rules.

It doesn’t have Jedi, the classic text crawl, or familiar faces for fans to connect with — and as a war film and not a space opera, it sets itself apart even further, taking Disney out of their comfort zone and into darker territory. Yet, defying the odds, Edwards recaptures the excitement and feel of Star Wars while simultaneously making it his own and, quite possibly, setting the standard for future Star Wars installments to come.

Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilory, Rogue One starts after the Clone Wars. The Galactic Empire reigns, the Jedi are gone, and the Rebel Alliance struggles to maintain ground. Upon discovering the Empire has created a super weapon with the ability to destroy entire planets, the Alliance recruits Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) to steal the plans so they can destroy it.

The genre change from a space opera to a war film defines Rogue One and separates it from other Star Wars films. Star Wars is rooted in the space opera genre. The two go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Even when Attack of the Clones, Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi had major battles, they remain space operas.

With this in mind, it makes sense why Rogue One would stand apart in style and tone because the story focuses so heavily on the Alliance’s rebellion against the Empire rather than a hero’s journey. It isn’t whimsical, light-hearted, silly or cute like you might find in A New Hope. It’s a drama with a dark edge that isn’t afraid of sticking its hands in the mud. And, Edwards feels right at home, giving it the gritty, dirty, edge the genre demands.

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Edwards ability to take larger-than-life stories, scaling them down and turning them into a relatable human drama is exactly what we needed for Rogue One. He injects so many great war film influences into this film like the cinematography of The Thin Red Line and the grit and edginess of Apocalypse Now. Unlike the prequels, where everything looked pristine, in Rogue One the characters, robots, and cities are all beaten up, used and filthy, giving it texture and a return to form of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.

But, Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser also capture the grandeur of Star Wars. The landscape shots are sweeping, breathtaking and immersive, bringing you deeper into each world and making them feel more intimate and interesting.

Whereas some of The Force Awakens action scenes almost felt safe within a whimsical tone, Edwards puts every battle and fight scene on a razor edge, compounding the already heavy stakes. As if pulled from your favorite war films, the visceral and intense action sequences are like nothing we’ve seen in Star Wars before.

Edwards juxtaposes his own vision with the traditional Star Wars and is perhaps his greatest feat. I could easily see the Star Wars mythos getting lost in the weeds of the genre or his style — but instead, they play nicely together, never one overwhelming the other. With that said, this is the first time I’ve watched a Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi and actually felt like I was watching a Star Wars film again. While The Force Awakens came very close, in the back of my mind it always felt like it was trying to be a Star Wars film rather than just being.

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Besides the Ewok movies that no one wants to remember, Rogue One is the first film in the franchise to not be scored by John Williams. Michael Giacchino’s (Doctor Strange, Jurassic World) score walks the road less traveled by, rarely paying homage to Williams, plotting his own course, instead. I think this is the right move by Giacchino.

Again, Rogue One is not your typical Star Wars movie. The genre change alone demands a more somber, subtle, and emotional sound, and Giacchino clearly understands that. Subtle is the best way to describe the score. While Williams always produced a majesty and grandeur to Star Wars, making it larger than life, Giacchino tones all that down, feeling the emotional weight within each scene, communicating through music what Edwards communicates through the visuals. With that said, it’s easy to miss Williams’ grandiose style and want a little bit of it in some scenes.

Prequels are difficult stories to tell. If the audience knows how the story will end, how do you keep the suspense intact and still make it interesting? For Rogue One, the answer is in the character relationships. While the storytelling is par for the course with decent pacing and enough of a plot to keep you interested, the real, compelling nature of the story is with Jyn Erso’s relationship with her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and her budding relationship with newfound partner, Cassian Endo (Diego Luna). Even though Jyn and her father rarely share screen time, the bond between the two is well-established. Their relationship drives the story and gives it added heft. You want to see Jyn reunited with her father and in the process watch her grow as she fights for the Rebellion.

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Unlike Rey in The Force Awakens, Jyn isn’t a Mary Sue. She’s not perfect, but rough around the edges with plenty of flaws. She has a great character arc and grows as the story unfolds. Her partner, Cassian, is a hard, stone cold soldier who does whatever it takes to get the job done but struggles with the morality of some of his actions. All the lead characters, while not entirely well-rounded, have their own quirks, beliefs and world-views — but most of all they’re imperfect, making them equally relevant and relatable.

The storytelling excels at staying grounded amid a plot that is neck deep in political struggle, focusing on the individual characters caught in the balance rather than distant and boring disputes over trade routes — a plague that haunted the Star Wars prequels. I have to hand it to Edwards and the screenwriters for taking bold storytelling choices that break from formula especially as the story comes to a close. I can see Disney and focus groups having a fit over some of these choices, but they work for the story and make it better than the same old cookie cutter movies we’ve been spoon-fed.

While they get the overall storytelling right, it is not without error. Too often characters land on decisions that make no sense (or aren’t clear), have abilities that aren’t explained or are supposedly insane in one scene but perfectly fine in the next. These errors are subtle, but feel sloppy and distracting.

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The humor in Rogue One as compared to previous Star Wars films is kept to a minimum. Most of it comes from K-2SO, the Empire droid turned Rebel, who has a dry and rather dark sense of humor. Much like the antithesis to C-3PO, when he provides his dark comic relief, it works, and fits the tone — but its pensive and cynical nature might not sit right with fans. I thought it was just the right amount.

Of Rogue One‘s positives, the special effects, costumes and set design can be added to the list. Edwards sticks to Abrams style of depending more on practical effects than computer generated graphics, but still utilizes it when needed. Of course, effects continue to progress, getting better and better, seamlessly fitting into the overall picture.

The only technology that still needs work is the face replacement technology or CGI-Face as I like to call it. For those who don’t know, it’s usually when they need to make someone look younger (like Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War) and use computer graphics to alter a real person’s face to look like someone else. To keep spoilers to a minimum I won’t say who gets the CGI-Face treatment, but I will say it feels like you’re watching a video game and it is distracting. Personally, I think it would have been more forgivable to just find a look-a-like rather than plaster on CGI-Face.

Not for the faint of heart, Rogue One unleashes some very dark, intense and unsettling scenes, catering more to adults than kids. And it isn’t without flaws with some unconvincing CGI and questionable writing. But overall it’s a powerful, grounded film that pushes Star Wars into new and exciting territories. While it diverges from the norms of the Star Wars model, it still feels right at home within the franchise.

By sticking to genre like glue, hinging the story on compelling characters and their relationships and making bold narrative moves, I think it will become a model for many Star Wars films to come. I guarantee by the end you’ll be itching to run home immediately and throw in A New Hope.

 

GRADE: 9/10

 

 

Photos Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios

 

 



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