I never thought I’d see the day when the Star Wars franchise would branch off from periodic episode installments into a series of spinoff films. True, 2008 saw the release of the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but it was such an underwhelming effort that I didn’t think anything more would come of it. Then again, that was before the extreme proliferation of comic book adaptations, which have been so incredibly profitable that of course major movies studios would want to follow suit by milking as many franchises as possible. Because the Star Wars universe is so rife with narrative gaps and unexplored characters and themes, I suppose the writing was on the wall.
One of those gaps has been filled with the latest spinoff, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The easiest way to think of it is as Episode III-and-a-Half. 1977’s Star Wars, also known as Episode IV – A New Hope, began with Princess Leia in possession of the plans to the Death Star; Rogue One, at its essence, is the story of how those plans were delivered to her. It unfolds as a series of events the film’s distributor, Disney, has urged us members of the press to not describe in detail, lest the entire film be spoiled. Any good critic would intrinsically understand this, but I won’t gripe. If anything, I should be grateful that I actually was invited to see it in advance, which is more than I can say for last Christmas’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
As entertaining as The Force Awakens was, it was really nothing more than an Episode IV remake masquerading as an all new seventh episode. Rogue One – helmed by Gareth Edwards, whose 2014 reboot of Godzilla failed to impress me – does a much better job of telling an original story, and for the most part, it’s very engaging. It does get off to a bit of a slow start and has some questionable character development. This is most evident with a Clone Wars veteran played by Forrest Whitaker, who, with his robotic legs and frequent need to take puffs from an oxygen mask, I assumed was intended to be this film’s answer to Darth Vader. But by the second half, it kicks into high gear with the very aerial battles and blaster fights we’ve come to love, and I was happy to sit back and let it all happen.
The tradeoff is that it isn’t quite as much fun as most of the original Star Wars films. As originally conceived by George Lucas, the intention was to tell the story in the language of 1930s Saturday matinee serials, which were traditionally high-spirited and uncynical. Rogue One doesn’t have that same level of innocence. It’s darker, more somber, more fatalistic. It doesn’t soften the blow when something tragic happens, and believe me, tragic things do happen. And in spite of appearances by some very familiar broadly drawn characters, the line between good and evil isn’t so clearly defined this time around; many of the heroes of this story are deeply flawed individuals with ugly pasts who have done bad things.
A quick rundown of some of the other characters: Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who was orphaned at an early age and harbors deep emotional wounds; Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an intelligence officer for the Rebellion with a murky moral code; Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), an adherent of the Force whose blindness doesn’t prevent him from engaging in martial arts, and winning each fight; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a reformed Imperial pilot; Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a mercenary assassin; and K-2SO (a computer-generated character voiced by Alan Tudyk), an Imperial droid reprogrammed by the Rebellion, which apparently included making him sarcastic. There’s also an appearance by Mads Mikkelsen, whose character’s importance will not be revealed by me, and another appearance by … well, let’s just say that, with today’s computer technology, it is indeed possible to bring actors back from the dead.
Many of the vehicles and machines we all want to see are there, including X-Wing Fighters, Star Destroyers, AT-AT Walkers, and of course the Death Star, which does indeed use its incredible fire power on very specific targets. If you pay extra to see the film in 3D – and at this point, I think it’s safe to assume that all Star Wars movies will be released that way from now on – you should feel rightly immersed in the world the filmmakers create, especially during the space battle at the end. It goes without saying, though, that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is about more than its visuals. It actually tells a story. It may not be as lightweight as past installments, and perhaps it was driven more by money than by creativity, but you can’t argue with the end result.