Star Wars: Rogue One,
directed by Gareth Edwards
(Walt Disney Studios, 2016)

Remember the opening crawl that first introduced legions of movie fans to the Star Wars universe? Those few brief lines provide the basic plot of Star Wars: Rogue One, the latest prequel in the series.

But, unlike the other prequels, this one doesn't suck.

(Before I get a ton of hate mail, I will acknowledge that I, too, was swept up in the initial excitement of the prequel movies, as my reviews of them show, but -- despite some cool scenes and just a couple strong performances -- they were really terrible overall and didn't hold up to multiple viewings. The prequel trilogy left me believing that Star Wars had been ruined for good, a belief dispelled by The Force Awakens and, even more so, Rogue One.)

Perhaps better titled Star Wars: Suicide Squad, the movie sends our band of heroes on a dead-end mission with the largest possible stakes: finding the weakness that will help the Rebels in Star Wars: A New Hope destroy the planet-killing Death Star. The Rebel Alliance is on the brink of dissolution in this movie when series newcomer Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young woman carrying residual guilt for her father's role in designing the Death Star, offers **cough** some new hope.

While the bureaucrats opt for ending the rebellion entirely in the face of this new threat, Erso inspires a tight-knit band of fighters to disobey orders and go anyway. It's a ballsy move, without which there could be no Star Wars.

It is somewhat refreshing to see a Star Wars movie that doesn't focus almost exclusively on the Jedi and Sith. And, except for one badass scene at the end, we don't even see any lightsabers. What we do get is a strong storyline peopled with plausible characters, and some AMAZING battle scenes.

Besides Erso, who ties the group together, we get the rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the former Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who are both kind of forgettable but still make up the group's core. K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) is the mandatory droid, in this case a reprogrammed imperial security droid. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind Force-sensitive martial arts expert, and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) is his tough, blaster-happy life partner.

Back at the Rebel base on Yavin 4, we have Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly, replacing Caroline Blakiston from Return of the Jedi), Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and General Dodonna (Ian McElhinney, replacing Alex McCrindle from A New Hope), as well as archive footage bringing Red Leader and Gold Leader back to life, along with a cadre of X-wing, Y-wing and U-wing pilots. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is an enigmatic Rebel extremist who, to be honest, doesn't bring much to the film.

On the other side, we have Death Star director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who forces Jyn's father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to design the planet-killing weapon against his will. Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones, but with Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous filling the suit instead of David Prowse) makes a few key appearances, one of which directly precedes the opening scene of A New Hope and will leave you gasping. Most shocking for those who managed to avoid spoilers for this movie is (SPOILER) the major part played by Governor Tarkin. Yes, Peter Cushing is still dead, but actor Guy Henry deftly mimics his voice and, with CGI eerily altering his features, makes an almost perfect Tarkin. I say "almost perfect" because the technology still makes the CGI a little too obvious, while at the same time being kind of creepy. Still, it's pretty cool to see Tarkin back in action (END SPOILER).

By the way, actress Ingvild Deila similarly brings another classic character back to life for a vital but extremely brief scene. I'll leave that surprise unspoiled.

Rogue One injected a lot of excitement into my Star Wars world. It proves that a Star Wars movie can survive on the backs of heroes who aren't named (or otherwise related to) Skywalker or Solo. It raises significant questions about the future of cinema in a world where being dead doesn't necessarily end your acting career. And, with a tone even darker than The Empire Strikes Back, it reminds us that happy endings aren't necessary, even when Disney is holding the reins. People die in this movie -- more than you might expect -- and they're people we find ourselves caring about.

Rogue One is a good Star Wars movie. More importantly, it's a good movie, full stop. I hope they can continue their momentum with future projects (although, frankly, I'm still pretty worried about the "young Han Solo" film in the works).

review by
Tom Knapp

31 December 2016

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