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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there was Rogue One A Star Wars Story. Not the actual Star Wars story, of course, the one about Jedi Knights and galactic emperors with quasi-mystical powers, the next instalment of which won’t be along until this time next year.
But a Star Wars story nonetheless, about people who don’t have quasi-mystical powers and have never done the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs, although they’re reasonably good with a blaster in a tight spot. It’s an epic about extras, an opera about spear carriers.The opening crawl of the original Star Wars told us simply that “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon,” and until Rogue One was announced, that was enough. Who those spies were and how they accomplished their mission was unimportant: all that mattered was that the princess and the ‘chosen one’ had what they needed.
Rogue One, which was directed by Gareth Edwards and written by Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy – the latter of whom reportedly directed substantial reshoots as well – doesn’t add to that tale so much as weave around and through it, fleshing out what transpired on the ground before Luke and his sister were sailing among the stars.
So it is that we find ourselves riding shotgun with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a plucky but otherwise undistinguished half-orphan whose father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is the unwilling architect of the Empire’s newest and deadliest weapon, the Death Star. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) tracks her down 15 years after Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) kidnapped her father and killed her mother, hoping that she’ll be able to provide an entrée to the militant radical Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), the recipient of a covert message from Galen borne by a renegade cargo pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who… okay, this part of the movie’s a mess, honestly.
The intention of Rogue One’s opening movement is to assemble a ragtag gang of fighters, one that also finds the blind Force worshipper Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and the grizzled gunner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), who will take up the charge of obtaining the Death Star plans when the Rebel Alliance gets cold feet. Yen and Jiang portray their characters with a gruff tenderness that hints that their relationship may be more than platonic, and Alan Tudyk lends his voice and his movements to K-2SO, a wisecracking former Imperial robot with an unnerving penchant for calculating the exact likelihood of his comrades’ deaths. But neither Edwards nor the writers know how to bring the characters together in any convincing way, so they settle for having them run next to each other until they ultimately fall into sync.
Once they do, however, Rogue One starts humming, and although it sputters and coughs now and again, it never lets up. Different from The Force Awakens, which struggled to shoulder the weight of myth, Rogue One is a machine of a movie that moves toward its unavoidable endpoint with unrelenting determination. Although there are a few familiar faces, most drawn from Star Wars‘ C-list – Mon Mothma! Bail Organa! – its characters are almost entirely new, which means the film can do with them as it wants. It isn’t hemmed in the way most prequels are; for all we know from the original Star Wars, Jyn and crew could have perished in a nuclear blast or retired to a life of ease.
Edwards naturally drops tons of references to the original trilogy – a certain pair of classically mismatched robots make a cameo appearance – but they seem more like passing bits of entertain than grindingly mandatory fan service. The movie even provides an answer to the nagging question of why the Empire would build a planet-destroying superweapon while allowing direct access to its most vulnerable point.
If you’re still fact-checking Star Wars, there’s perhaps a better way to use your time.
More crucial than Rogue One‘s contribution to Star Wars‘ plot is the way it inhabits its universe. JJ Abrams had the responsibility of extrapolating from the original trilogy, and George Lucas’s prequels wound back the clock, but Edwards’ movie is happening virtually on top of the first movie, which leaves him with a unique and daunting task: to make a movie with virtually the same elements as the original Star Wars that still feels like it was made in 2016 and not 1977.
The movie does this loosely by engaging a multiracial cast from different parts of the world, but also by a embracing the wide range of perspectives that come with it. When Jyn says she’s planning to end her brief tenure in the rebellion since it makes no difference to her who rules the entire galaxy, Cassian claims she’s lucky to have been born with a choice; you needn’t to speak Aurabesh to recognize the suggestion that Jyn check her privilege.
That this literally motley gang’s heroism is never so much spoken in the films that follow it chronologically only makes their heroism seem more poignant: they are history’s forgotten soldiers, putting their lives on the line while others carry the baton to the finish line. When the X-wing pilots show up with their brushy ‘70s handlebar moustaches, it delivers the ends of the series’ circle together, but it also reminds us how much has changed between then and now.
What hasn’t changed, much, is the way this world feels. Although the spaceships are built in a computer rather than by hand, they still look battered by years of service. Spacecrafts still pop out of hyperspace with an absurd lack of forward momentum, stormtroopers are still flung into the air by explosions like they’re jumping in sync, and, most importantly, locked doors still cracked open with a simple blaster shot to the control panel.
Edwards embraces the original aesthetic in all its usual wackiness, semi-conical helmets and archaic plot devices included. A main objective in the film’s climax finds the battle to reach an abruptly critical “master switch” that, for no apparent reason at all, is positioned in the middle of a clearing. It’s a setup so dumb it’s smart, a reminder that if you’re fact-checking the Star Wars series at this late date, there’s probably a better use for your time.
Sometimes, the attempt to replicate the original goes too far, especially when it involves using digital technology to make Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin come back to life. Cushing and his estate are honored in the credits, but the character can’t get away from the ‘uncanny valley’, and the result is far more distracting than it would have been to merely cast a new actor in the part. (It’s far easier to bring back Darth Vader: James Earl Jones reprises the voice, and new actors fill out the suit.)
But by the time Rogue One movie works its way around to the climactic battle, set around a data storage facility improbably located in what looks like a tropical paradise, Rogue One movie is squarely focused on the new characters we’ve come to know, and the battle we’ve come to live. We know they succeed in getting the Death Star‘s blueprints to the rebel comrades, but we’ve never known the true cost of that success. Once we do, that knowledge holds the tantalizing prospect of making even Star Wars seem like something new again.