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Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Premise: Taking place directly before the events of 1977’s Star Wars, an outlaw (Felicity Jones) is rescued by the Rebel Alliance because her father is the key engineer in the construction of the Death Star. She’s sent on a mission to find her father and steal the plans to the space station.

What Works: Rogue One is an attempt to tell new stories in the Star Wars universe. While this film isn’t too far afield of the Skywalker saga, Rogue One does tell a somewhat different and more textured Star Wars story. In the other movies, the moral distinction between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance has been very clear. Rogue One offers some nuance. The galaxy has been broken by civil war and the Rebels sometimes compromise their moral integrity for the sake of the mission. The moral ambiguity is in keeping with the gritty style of this picture. Rogue One has plenty of action sequences but this is a less romantic picture than the original Star Wars and it’s a bit more mature. There are some storytelling choices in the climax that are harsher than we usually see in a Hollywood tentpole adventure movie. The filmmakers’ willingness to break from crowd pleasing happy endings is admirable and gives the movie some gravitas. That said, it’s still fun and Rogue One gives fans a recognizable Star Wars experience that’s fresher than The Force Awakens. Rogue One also features some impressive digital performances. Alan Tudyk is credited as K-2SO and this droid is the most watchable non-human character in the series since Jabba the Hutt. He’s also very funny. But Rogue One’s major technical accomplishment is the digitally enhanced performances of human actors. Angus MacInnes and Drewe Henley reprise their roles of Red Leader and Gold Leader from the 1977 film and the illusion is flawless. Equally impressive is Guy Henry’s performance as Grand Moff Tarkin. Henry has been digitally made over to resemble actor Peter Cushing and it’s an astonishingly convincing effect.

What Doesn’t: The original Star Wars was released thirty-nine years ago and although it took place in a fantasy world, the style and technology were tethered to the culture of the late 1970s. In keeping with the 1977 film, Rogue One includes details that seem quaint in the digital age. This is most obvious in the Rebel fighters’ mission to infiltrate an Imperial base and steal the plans to the Death Star. The very notion that the Empire would keep a physical copy in a storage facility seems old fashioned in an era of hacking and cyberwarfare. Some of the art direction of the Star Wars universe also looks artificial in Rogue One in a way it didn’t in the original trilogy. That’s most obvious in Darth Vader’s outfit which tends to look like a Halloween costume. Rogue One’s efforts at fans service are sometimes unnecessary or forced. Most of the references blend into the movie but there are moments when Rogue One stops to include a cameo by a character from the classic films. Instead of enhancing the Star Wars feel, it’s disruptive; the film becomes self-aware and reminds us that we’re watching a Star Wars movie. While Rogue One distinguishes itself from the existing films, the climax returns to familiar Star Wars tropes. The final battle reiterates familiar Star Wars scenarios in which ground forces blow up a shield generator while spaceships dogfight overhead. A surprising shortcoming of Rogue One is its characters. Star Wars has created many unique and memorable characters but the cast of Rogue One tends to be flat and absent of motivation. The editing of Rogue One is also a bit rough. Individual scenes are well assembled but sequences don’t always lead naturally from one to the next. The rhythms of the storytelling are sometimes off and the very end of the film concludes suddenly without a proper denouement.

Bottom Line: Rogue One effectively recaptures the tone of the original trilogy while telling a story that is a little more complex. The characters aren’t as memorable and it sometimes trips over itself in the effort to provide fan service. But Rogue One is a satisfactory Star Wars adventure that will hopefully send the series in new directions.

Episode: #626 (December 18, 2016)