December 13, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Gone rogue ...

Grade: B +
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed and Forest Whitaker
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 13 min.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story announces that it takes place “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” but sans the iconic opening crawl that always follows. It portends a self-awareness that while this film recognizes its station in the Star Wars anthology, it also desires to stand apart, and not just because it isn’t the first Star Wars film not scored by John Williams.

Virtually the entire Star Wars saga, with its unending battle between tyranny and freedom, has been shown from the perspective of its chief principals: leaders of the Jedi, the Senate, the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire. Forgotten is the hoi polloi and an answer to the question of why they fight.

Rogue One isn’t just another swashbuckling space opera full of firefights, dogfights, and daddy issues, though there are plenty of each. It’s a war film about the oppression wrought by an occupying force and the origins of rebellion. It portrays an Imperial army that stifles personal liberties, rips apart families and plunders sacred cities before leveling them. It’s also about the cognitive dissonance of a subjugated people. Death Troopers orphaned Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) when she was a child. Fifteen years later, an extremist Clone Wars vet, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), wonders why it doesn’t bother Jyn to see the Imperial flag flying across the galaxy. “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up,” Jyn responds.

Set before the events in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Rogue One follows a ragtag band charged with pilfering blueprints for the Death Star, the Empire’s new, all-powerful weapon of mass destruction. Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), Jyn’s father, is a scientist conscripted by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), director of the Death Star project, onto the clandestine construction of the marauding moon. Years later, an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) delivers a coded message from Galen informing the Rebels about the Death Star’s existence, and that he’s inserted a fatal flaw in its design for them to exploit.

While the Rebels’ aims are broadly high-minded, their methods are more granular and sometimes compromised. Saw Gerrera utilizes torture to extract information. While Jyn wants to rescue her father and retrieve the Death Star plans, skeptical Rebel leaders, including intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), secretly decide to assassinate Galen, believing that will stymie the battle station’s completion. Indeed, the sympathetic Galen still has a direct hand in creating the Death Star and the ruination it causes, even as he plots to bring about its eventual end.

Director Gareth Edwards continues the shift that began in The Forces Awakens to broaden the gender, racial and cultural composition of the key cast. Rogue One features a female principal protagonist, like The Force Awakens but without the glib backstory. Beyond Luna (Mexican) and Whitaker (African-American), and Ahmed (British Pakistani), two Chinese-born actors—Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen—portray keepers of the fading Jedi flame. They stand guard over the ruins of the Temple of the Whills, located on the moon of Jedha, the Jedi’s pilgrimage planet. More than its predecessors, Rogue One fully embraces the notion of the Force as not just a religion, but also filling the role that religion historically serves for an oppressed people, down to the recurring incantation of Yen’s blind mystic Chirrut Îmwe: “I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.”

Rogue One barely avoids being the first Stars Wars film without a lightsaber or the C3PO-R2D2 pairing. The droid du jour is K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid whose garrulous wry wit makes him a cross between C3PO and HAL. Still, Star Wars devotees will find that the film both grasps and deftly incorporates the franchise’s iconography. CGI helps transform actor Guy Henry into a spitting image of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin. Our first glimpse of Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) is of him submerged in a bacta tank, foretelling and further analogizing son Luke Skywalker’s recuperation after the wampa attack in The Empire Strikes Back. Just when you worry that Vader’s much-ballyhooed reprise will be a glorified cameo, he returns in the film’s dizzying final five minutes to reset his role as a brutal embodiment of evil, a dark clarity lost amid his moral conflict in Revenge of the Sith and soul-searching in Return of the Jedi.

We’ll eventually discover what changes were made during the Rogue One’s copious and much-reported reshoots, although rumors that they include the addition of an anti-Trump slant are ridiculously inaccurate. The Galactic Empire of Rogue One finds its real-life analogs in ancient Rome, colonial Britain, the Ottomans, and even American imperialism. There’s still the crosscutting battle finale, and the disembodied voice of James Earl Jones, and the familiar space ships available at a toy store near you. But the film takes the theme of good versus evil coursing throughout the saga and extracts the toll of anti-totalitarianism writ large. Heroes don’t always live, and hope can come at great cost. Rogue One is one with Star Wars, and Star Wars is one with it.