Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Warning: Spoilery and long review by a self-admitted Star Wars fan (with Stormtrooper tattoo to prove it).

A small group of rebels sets off to go retrieve the plans to the Death Star after receiving a communication that seems to indicate that they will be the downfall of the Empire in this sequel/prequel/side story to the Star Wars prequels/original trilogy.  Touted as the first standalone Star Wars, Rogue One is heavily entrenched in the Star Wars lore and fills in gaps and what could have been considered plot holes in the past.  The story here is easily to follow for people who may have never seen a Star Wars film, but it feels like a story built for the fans of the franchise.  The story feels like a Star Wars one and the characters feel like they belong in the universe with many cameos and full presences by some very familiar faces and names.  This leads the story to feel familiar and yet the changes, the connections that could have been or the additions or who knows make it feel like something is missing to the story.  Rogue One is a hard one for this review to fully embrace while wanting to, which is an odd place to find one’s fan brain in.

This new entry in the official cannon of Star Wars is of course based on characters and worlds created by George Lucas, the story here is by John Knoll and Gary White, with a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.  This means a lot of minds went to work on this one piece before it was put in the hands of director Gareth Edwards.  Here, Edwards does well at bringing the script to the screen and crafting an interesting film set in a very, very familiar world.  This director has a limited resume but some very heavy hitters on it including the most recent English language Godzilla.  The man is being trusted here with one of the biggest franchises in the nerd land and he does well with it.  His film feels like it belongs in the universe created by 7 other movies, tv shows, video games, etc.  However, this feeling is only partial to this fan and it may very well be due to elements out of his control which will be touched upon a bit later.

The huge cast here is led by Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso and Diego Luna as Cassian Andor and is fantastically varied in races, ages, and looks, but outside of a very few females is mostly male.  Thankfully, the females we do get are strong, badass women namely Jyn Erso our heroine, Mon Mothma, Lyra Erso, and (major spoiler) Princess Leia.  Of course a few others are female, but this is definitely a male dominate cast past the lead.  It does however very much feel like the female presence is the lead, similar with Force Awakens, and the ever presence of Leia and Padme in the other films.  The Star Wars world is a good place, getting better even, for girls to go look for their heroines, their role models.  Felicity Jones does well as Jyn Erso, giving the viewers a worthy new Star Wars heroine who can hold her own against the rest of the cast, allies and foes, and who can stand with the previous ladies of the series.

She gives a good performance even though it is a bit cold at times, which is something that one can attribute to her character’s backstory and growing years.  Diego Luna gives a more passionate performance as Cassian Andor, a rebel who wants to keep ranks but also wants to do all he can to help the Alliance.  Giving a fun and quippy performance while not actually being onscreen is Alan Tudyk as sassy droid K-2SO, who adds a bunch of quotable lines to dialogue while keeping in the spirit of previous films in the franchise.  Also worth noting is Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, the Jedi equivalent of Zaitoichi, fighting using the force and his experience while being blind.  His character is interesting but feels under-used as he has so much more potential.  His presence is felt throughout the film, but he should have gotten more screen time and better battle sequences.

On the Empire’s side, Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic does despicable desperation rather well, never fully giving away his character’s intention besides saving his own skin.  Playing against him is a CGI Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin who is played by actor Guy Henry who is then CGI’d into becoming an oddly animated, creepy in a different way, just a tad off Cushing.  This whole thing opens many debates about if it is right to use CGI to re-use dead actors or if it would be better to simply recast them.  This version of Peter Cushing is not completely off but it is not the real Cushing and it feels like a bad attempt at copying him while using great CGI which is still not exactly on point for this kind of extended screen presence.  It must be noted that this is not the only character that received this treatment but the most sacrilegious feeling one.

Another character coming back from the series is Darth Vader who has the advantage of having his face covered so the actor under the suit is easier to change up.  Playing the physical part of Darth Vader, Spencer Wilding does his best to be imposing but something is off, he walks a tad differently, carries himself differently than David Prowse did, which is getting nit-picky, but still an annoyance to some.  Voicing Vader once more is James Earl Jones who is irreplaceable and makes the character who he is almost no matter what.  His voice coming out of the suit fixes the issues with the walking, standing, the cape not being quite right, etc.  He helps sell the character as the Vader most have come to love to hate.

The special effects in Rogue One, besides the oddly cold animation of CGI character like Tarkin and a few others are fantastic.  They show what can be done with enough budget and proper pairing with physical effects.  The blending is perfect for most of the film and does not take one out of the story at all.  Also, the way some older footage is used and blended in with the new footage is works fantastically well and brings the viewer in the world they know and love, adding to this new story with a bunch of nostalgia.  The blasters, guns, lightsabers, and ships in battle all look right and that makes one willing to let go of some of the grips with the CGI character almost completely (but not quite).  The crew here did great work and shows a huge amount of talent at what they do.  Helping this are the film’s visuals in general with cinematography by director of photography Greig Fraser who clearly know how to shoot epic space battles.  His widely varied resume comes into play here and gives him the background to handle all of the scenes.

Another thing that was just a tad off was the music by Michael Giacchino using cues and parts of John Williams’ memorable score, Giacchino builds his own score and it goes well with the images on screen, the action, the emotions, but something feels missing, it feels not quite epic enough.  It is for a side-story to the Star Wars saga but it does not mean it should be any less epic and grabbing.  Score is something many do not think about but with Star Wars, it’s embedded in how the characters, things like the Imperial March with Darth Vader, are one with the memories of the originals and here the cues are there but they are frustrating at times with how they cut to something else and do not give the proper attention to when they are cut and left behind.  A few seconds extra in a few spots would have made a huge difference in this reviewer’s viewpoint.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a decent entry in the franchise, but it has issues.  As a fan of the films (and reader of the now axed expended universe), one goes into these films wanting to love them but with a bit of post-prequel worry.  This one is good, it’s fun, and it’s epic, but something is missing.  It might be due to the CGI character not quite working right and taking this viewer out of the film, it may have been due to the score not being perfectly epic, it may have been because of a lack of the original characters we know and love, or perhaps it’s because of the characters we know and love, the ones being there and not at the same time, the environment that is so familiar being filled with new faces, by good characters and great actors.  The film is fun, it’s enjoyable, it was exciting at times even, but something felt like it was missing or off.