A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, Star Wars films came out every three years. For a trilogy. Then went dormant for years. But with Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm, and the increasing reliance on franchises in Hollywood, it became clear that new Star Wars films would not only be coming out, but at a more rapid rate. The third Star Wars trilogy opened a year ago, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and two years will pass between that film and its sequel. In the meantime, though, Lucasfilm is finally using the grandeur of the big screen to do what it’s done for decades in other formats: expand the Star Wars universe with stories that go beyond the saga films. To kick off these new films, audiences are going into something mentioned in the opening text of Star Wars: A New Hope – the first victory for the Rebel Alliance, the acquisition of the plans for the Death Star.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has lived for 15 years in hiding under assumed names, after her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), was forced by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to go to work on an Imperial super weapon. When Galen convinces Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to contact insurgent Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), though, the Rebel Alliance rescues an imprisoned Jyn with the plan to use Jyn to get to Saw, who looked after Jyn following her father’s capture. Joining Jyn is Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), whose time with the Alliance has made him resort to morally questionable choices, and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid. They’re eventually joined by Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior with a connection to the Force, and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), his mercenary companion.
Rogue One represents a step in several new directions for future Star Wars films. Aside from being the first film that’s not set in the episodic chronology of the series, it’s the first film to not feature a Skywalker or a Jedi. It’s a war-based film that authentically feels like a war film; there are not only stakes at play, but a greater sense of potential doom. In fact, Rogue One is ultimately the darkest Star Wars film to date, outdoing even The Empire Strikes Back in that regard.
What Rogue One does well is establish the potential for future films to deviate from what may be considered a “Star Wars” film, while still feeling like part of the same universe. It removes some of the trappings that have distinguished the main series of films, such as the opening crawl and signature theme, but it also adds to the number of different worlds we’ve seen depicted over these films. It also uses the war component of the film to change up the visual style of the film. The epic space battles aren’t eliminated entirely, but there’s more fighting on the ground, and without the use of a lightsaber (for the most part) to boot.
The film’s characters are largely new to this universe, and they are intriguing new additions. At the center of this story is Jyn, and she’s a different kind of lead. She doesn’t have Force abilities like the primary leads in the other Star Wars films (Luke, Obi-Wan, Anakin, Qui-Gon, Rey). Her motivators here are very much personal, and even when she’s working for the greater good, there’s still a personal connection for her. Destroying the Death Star may have broader implications, but for Jyn, it’s a way to ensure her father’s ultimate goal is fulfilled. It doesn’t mean Jyn will magically be complete if she finishes her mission, but it gives everything in her past some broad sense of purpose.
Of the supporting cast, the fan favorite will likely be K-2SO, and with good reason. He’s the film’s prerequisite droid, but he’s not simply a remade C-3PO (or R2-D2 or BB-8). He provides many of the film’s most humorous moments, but they’re darkly humorous. He’s not cute, and he’s not annoying. In the context of the film, though, he’s a much-needed source of levity. Cassian, meanwhile, serves to do something unusual: to make audiences rethink the black-and-white nature of good and evil that we’ve largely seen in this universe to date. In his work for the Rebel Alliance, he commits some shockingly cold acts, and when he’s called out on it, his defenses aren’t convincing. Chirrut gets a brief but rich arc with his belief that, even though he’s not a Jedi, the Force moves through him. The evidence certainly points in his favor.
As for our primary villain, Krennic represents something different as primary villains go: he’s a career opportunist looking for bureaucratic advancement. Krennic continues a longstanding tradition of Imperial officers who are vicious and cutthroat, but he’s contending with higher-ranked figures in the Empire, subordinates who are out of line, and Rebels threatening his decades-long goal of impressing the Emperor with the Death Star.
And while he’s not included much, the film’s inclusion of Darth Vader is a welcome return of one of cinema’s most interesting villains. His screen time is brief, but he’s given some darkly amusing lines that fit with what we saw of the character in the original trilogy. He also gets a scene that is easily among his most memorable over the entirety of the series. You’ll know it when you see it.
Director Gareth Edwards brings a tremendous sense of scope to the film. Aside from the aforementioned perspective of the battle sequences, some of the shots he conveys in the film are unlike anything we’ve seen in a Star Wars film. Shots of the Death Star in particular make it more imposing than it’s ever appeared; one shot of it nearly completely blocking out a sun is terrifying, and watching the smaller-scale destruction it wreaks over the course of the film makes the ultimate destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars all the more impactful.
To be fair, not everything about the film works completely. The first and especially second acts lag at times, and for all of the solid notes about the characters, they’re less defined than those in both the original trilogy and The Force Awakens.
There’s also the decision to include Grand Moff Tarkin in the film, and how they chose to incorporate him. Including a reference to Tarkin makes sense, since he was as much a villain in Star Wars as Darth Vader was. Rather than simply recasting the role, though, the filmmakers created a version of Tarkin that relies on another actor to portray the character, but imposed a CGI version of Peter Cushing’s distinguished face on the character. This probably wouldn’t be a huge issue if Tarkin was shown one time in the film, or even twice, but in spite of the brief displays of Darth Vader in the film’s promotional material, Tarkin is the character who gets more screen time. And while what Edwards and Lucasfilm have done was probably the best of the available options for the story (because this film takes place right before the original film, outright recasting may be more glaring than this), it’s still a bit awkward – though it could be worse.
Ultimately, though, the weaknesses of Rogue One are overshadowed by a story that builds into one of the most exciting third acts of a Star Wars film. It’s daring and different, and not necessarily something one would expect from a film that’s part of a blockbuster franchise. And it perfectly sets itself up to lead directly into Star Wars. It may not be perfect, but it’s an exciting example of the ways in which what we consider a “Star Wars” film can grow in the future.