When Disney bought Lucasfilm back in 2012, the studio made it clear that it wanted to get the most out of the $4.05 billion it was paying. Not only would there be a new trilogy of Star Wars flicks, but the studio also wanted loads of spinoffs: movies that took place inside George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away, but didn’t necessarily follow the ongoing domestic squabbles of the Skywalker family. Importantly, the intention was to Marvel-ize Star Wars, expanding one of the richest and most beloved properties in history to tell a never-ending stream of tales across all genres and forms of media.
Last year, J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens did its job, restoring the franchise to its position as an almighty cinematic behemoth. This week, it’s time for round two, with Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One A Star Wars Story arriving at theaters.
A proof of concept for the expanded cinematic universe, Rogue One jumps back in time before 1977’s A New Hope, telling the story of a group of Rebels who hope to track down the plans for the original Death Star before it can lay waste to the galaxy. But it also has the unique challenge of defining a new kind of Star Wars flick, one that shares aesthetics and history with the first ones, while simultaneously starting nearly from scratch with its own characters, tone, and stylistic conventions. Audiences have been experiencing ancillary Star Wars stories in books, TV, and games for decades, but this is something new: a Star Wars movie that’s fundamentally separate from the film franchise we’ve always known.
So… let’s chat.
As I did with my review of The Force Awakens last year, I’m going to set one ground rule here: this review will not have any plot spoilers whatsoever. The only story specifics I’ll touch upon are the ones in the trailer above, because for another time, Disney and Lucasfilm have done a wonderful job of promoting a Star Wars movie without letting audiences know even a sliver of what’s actually going to take place. If the original Star Wars was a nostalgic throwback to the golden era of sci-fi serials, thus far Nouveau Star Wars has been a nostalgic throwback to the era of watching films without trailers spoiling everything, and I strongly advice going in with Rogue One knowing as few plot details as possible. But you’ll have to pay attention.
The movie moves quickly, and Rogue One throws a lot at its audience in the first hour without much beyond sheer momentum to hold things together. Unlike a conventional Star Wars sequel (or prequel), Rogue One has to build itself — and establish its characters — from the ground up, and the movie sometimes struggles with the workload. Breaking from the hero’s-adventure tradition that powered the original Star Wars trilogy is part of what makes the idea of a standalone film so compelling, but at times, the movie doesn’t quite know where to place its emphasis. It’s torn between the Empire’s nefarious actions, the Rebellion’s politics, and the gradual coming together of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her ragtag group of freedom fighters.
When Star Wars flicks are at their best, the characters themselves provide the most compelling throughline, and the magic trick J.J. Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan pulled off with The Force Awakens was coming up with characters like Rey and BB-8, who almost immediately became part of our larger cultural consciousness. Rogue One has its share of real standouts — Alan Tudyk is the undoubtedly comedic highlight as a wisecracking, former Imperial robot named K-2SO, and Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen (Ip Man) is remarkable as a blind monk with amazing fighting skills and heartbreaking humility to the will of The Force.
But by the end of the film, many characters still feel short and undefined, perhaps given a single attribute to highlight in a specific sequence, but otherwise lacking enough personality to stop them from fading into the background together with the other meticulously designed and costumed characters.
The screwball banter from characters like Han Solo and Princess Leia — or Rey and Finn, for that matter — is so essential to what we think of as Star Wars, so it’s hard not to feel like something’s amiss when those kind of exchanges never materialize, or when the darker tone never gives way to the Flash Gordon-style adventure we’ve grown accustomed to.
The score also suffers from comparisons. Michael Giacchino’s work is brilliant, but in spite of a spattering of themes and adopted stylistic flourishes, the movie simply doesn’t have the John Williams cues that have become so inextricably connected to the saga. It’s a tension that runs throughout the film: it’s trying to be Star Wars, but not. It’s trying to do something original, but not too original.That said, the film’s production design and visuals are faithful and worthy throwbacks.
Gareth Edwards has made no secret of his love for the original films, and that shows in every frame of Rogue One. The interiors of the Death Star are lovingly re-created, X-Wing dogfights feel pulled almost directly from A New Hope, and the art direction leaves no doubt that we’re in the same world we’ve visited before, perhaps just a few corridors away from some of the most iconic scenes in the franchise.