*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
I will be the first to admit that I was not nearly as excited for the release of Rogue One as I was for The Force Awakens this time last year. I found it hard to get excited to meet characters that I knew going into the film I would never see again, no matter what happened to them in the story, because we’ve already gone past all that. Other than a possibility for cameos in the Clone Wars TV show, these characters would not be coming back. In the end, Rogue One didn’t make me care about their characters (except for K-2SO, I swear there are no robots they can’t make me love), but I was still watching Star Wars unfold before my eyes. Even though the story was like nothing I had come to expect from the galaxy far far away and I wished they had explored some of the other details they introduced to us, the finale battle alone was enough to remind me that yes, this is the Rebel Alliance. This is a realm missing their Jedi. This is what Star Wars is.
At the height of the Empire’s power, former scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) is forcibly recruited to work on a super weapon, leaving his wife dead and daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) behind. Fifteen years later Jyn falls in with the Rebel Alliance, who have just learned that the weapon Galen helped to create is ready to test on unsuspecting worlds. They ask her to reach out to former ally Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who now leads an extremist group of rebels separately from the Alliance. After discovering a weakness in the construction, the Alliance sets out on a mission to steal the plans of the newly-named Death Star, setting up the events of the epic trilogy we’ve all come to know and love.
The strength of Rogue One’s storytelling lies in its stunning visuals. No one can accuse this film of copying the worlds from the original trilogy (unlike the attempts to “honor” the originals in The Force Awakens), they are all so diverse and well-crafted. The film also gives the characters plenty of time to wander in these worlds, leaving us no regrets about the amount of time we’ve spent in each one. The pinnacle of these worlds is, of course, is the tropical world of Scarif, where the final battle takes place. Not only is it one of the best battle scenes that the Star Wars franchise has ever presented to us, but it really dives into the awe and imagination of the franchise that we’ve all come to know and love. It goes from the explosions and battle-strewn ground covered in AT-ATs and Stormtroopers (whose shooting abilities aren’t quite as good as they were in Force Awakens but they still hit a few targets) to the majesty of fighter ships in space whizzing over planets we can only dream up. This is what Star Wars used to be, and sometime that got lost in the Trade Federation and the space politics and, just a little bit, in the search for the Jedi that we’re getting in the new trilogy. This movie is all rebels, all visual, and with the pure idea of the Force rather than the overuse of the magic of it all.
It’s a good thing that the visuals cover the ticket charge, because I’m not sure I could pay it on just the story alone. It’s actually kind of shocking that, for how much they intend to enlighten us, they still leave so much undiscussed. Though Jyn Erso is given as the main character, more of her backstory is discussed in the trailers for the film than in the film itself, leaving both her and her father less than adequately explored. This is a problem with several characters, actually – they are either not given enough time to establish themselves (especially when we know going in that we will never see them again) or the really interesting parts of their personalities and backstories are the ones that are sidelined. Some of them could even be considered a little stereotypical, which is disappointing when this is easily the most diverse cast Star Wars has ever had.
This is really the only downfall of Rogue One: when it comes to the visuals, the director knew exactly what we wanted. When it comes to the characters and the story, he may have missed the cue a little. Several characters were given interesting story lines that were never explored – Whitaker, for one, was completely underused as a rebel so extreme they kicked him out of the Rebellion, but you would never know that because he’s never allowed to do anything really extreme. That’s the entire rebellion in this film, really. When you watch the original trilogy you almost get the feeling that before Luke and Leia the rebellion wasn’t getting anything done at all. Now we’re starting to see what they were doing all that time, what they were willing to do. The first rebel we see, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) demonstrates his commitment to the rebellion by shooting an informant, just so he couldn’t compromise them. This is Dark Rebellion, and it’s fascinating. It gives so much more meaning to the weight of every action taken in the original franchise and offers a new look into what life was like after the Empire took over, which was (now realizing) actually really downplayed when we watched Luke deal with it. The entire Star Wars universe was darker, and I loved it. I just wish we could have seen more of it.
It does speak well to the actors that every time their characters were onscreen, I wanted to see more of them. After the cute BB-8, the sassy sarcasm of K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is a welcome addition to the droid army we are all coming to know and love. And though I wish we’d been given more on his place in the universe, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) was an absolute joy. Without any Jedi around, his view of the Force was the only connection to it that we had, and it was simple faith – no battles, no ultimatums, no fantasy, just the power of belief. Maybe he wasn’t pushing people through the air or summoning a lightsaber to his hand, but this was almost better for me, to see someone that committed without using it the way we’ve seen the Jedi do. Several of the characters gave great performances too, from turncoat pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to Imperial official Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) who views the Death Star as his claim to fame.
There was only one performance in Rogue One that I was not happy to see, and that was the CGI restoration of Governor Tarkin (bodily performed by Guy Henry, reconstructed in the image of Peter Cushing, who died in 1994). I do believe that Cushing’s original performance of Tarkin was one of the great highlights of A New Hope, and I would have loved to see him perform himself in a prequel to the story. But the idea of continuing to use someone’s likeness, even after they’re gone, just doesn’t sit well with me. Especially when the CGI looks so dramatically fake. This isn’t the first time this has been done on film, of course – after Paul Walker’s death in 2013, his brothers stepped in to complete his performance in Furious 7 and their faces were digitally altered to look like Paul’s. Now, in the wake of Carrie Fisher’s death, the two options seem to be to either scrap her work on the upcoming Star Wars Episode VIII altogether or to completely CGI her into the picture. Something about that just doesn’t sit well with me – the actors whose likenesses are being used have no opportunity to protest with how they are being used, and it’s not really fair to the actors and actresses standing in for them (because Guy Henry is not the one whose acting is seeing praised, even if he was the one standing there speaking the words). Will it hurt not to see General Leia after the scenes she filmed for Episode VIII (especially when it was announced she had finished shooting already)? Of course. Was it nice to have Tarkin back to provide the dictator evil overlord we loved from A New Hope? In a way, yes. But this way of doing it just seems wrong, especially when Tarkin looks more fake than the dinosaurs in Jurassic World.
We are one with the Force, and the Force is with us. We are one with the Force, and the Force is with us.