It's a Hard Mission, But Someone Has to Do It
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
When Disney bought Lucasfilm, one of the first things they did was announce a slate of new Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. movies. Having found success with the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe., Disney wanted a similar release schedule for their movies -- odd years would see the release of a new entry in the main Saga (one of the "Episodes") while even years would see the release of new "Star Wars Stories", midquels or interquels that show us events in between the main entries in the series. Lucasfilm had seen some merit with this idea once before, the theatrical release of The Clone Wars, although that film served only as a pilot, really, for the TV show to follow.
It's hard to argue with the logic of the idea: Star Wars has always been a beloved franchise, one of the two biggest sci-fi series along with Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture., and as Trek had proved, fans could be on board with regular entries in a series, both with TV shows and films running concurrently. Marvel, meanwhile, was already up to a three-movie a year schedule for the MCU films, so why not take Star Wars into yearly releases? The series even saw success with the first entry in this "Star Wars Stories", today's subject: Rogue One. This film, which takes place shortly before the events of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (literally ending right as that film begins), was even successful, raking in over a billion for it's modest story.
Of course, then Disney scrapped the idea for more "Star Wars Stories" two years later when Solo: A Star Wars Story wildly underperformed (making only about a third as much as Rogue One). Why did Han Solo's solo adventure fare so poorly while Rogue One seemed to do so well? Where was the magic that was missing between the two films?
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is, more than anything, a story of the Death Star. As glimpsed at the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (in a shot that probably didn't make such sense at the time for people new to the series), the Empire has a new weapon ready to fire: the Death Star. Under construction for 9 years, the Death Star is the Empire's biggest tool, the thing that can crush the Rebellion by destroying any planet known to hold separatists. It was designed by Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), but, years prior Galen had left the development team over qualms about what they were building. The Empire, though, doesn't let go lightly so they tracked him down and dragged him back, killing his wife in the process. His young daughter, Jyn, escapes, hiding in a bunker until Galen's friend, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) can come and collect her.
Years later, we find Jyn (Felicity Jones) on her own, a prisoner of the Empire (under a fan identity) for various infractions -- Jyn is not really a team player. Freed by the Rebellion, Jyn is tasked with joining Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-S2O (voiced by Alan Tudyk) on a mission to find Gerrera and talk to the fugitive rebel. It seems Gerrera has come into some important information about the Death Star and our team of Rebels has to get that info and use it to maybe find a way to defeat the Death Star, saving the Rebellion and dealing a critical blow to the Empire.
The biggest knock against Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the same gripe I had with The Clone Wars and Solo: being an interquel to established parts of the canon, Rogue One makes itself inconsequential because it's shading in details we already knew. As a direct prequel to Episode IV, giving us the back story of the crew of heroes that retrieved the Death Star blueprints, we already know that in the end their mission would be successful. If they weren't able to get the plans, the events of A New Hope couldn't happen. This is compounded by an ending that directly ties itself to the opening of the fourth episode in the series, showing just how interconnected this world really is.
But where the CGI-animated Clone Wars and Solo stumbled was in focusing on characters that recurred in later works -- we already had seen the future of Anakin in Episode III so there couldn't be any big surprises in Clone Wars; we already knew Han Solo was hanging around in a cantina in Episode IV so there was absolutely no thrill in following him around in his earlier life. Rogue One, though, wisely focused on characters we hadn't seen before, had only heard about in passing, so much of their fate wasn't yet set in stone. When all we know is that "a team managed to smuggle out the Death Star plans" that leaves a lot of wiggle room to shade in a detailed story with a lot of surprises.
To that end, the film gives us a diverse cast of characters that aren't rally like the character we already knew from the upcoming movies. Jyn is a woman with a chip on her soldier, someone not looking to join the fight since so much of the world had betrayed her. Andor is a bit of a Solo analogue, but he's at least committed to a cause and deeply invested in the fate of the galaxy. K-2SO is a smug and sarcastic droid with, deep down, an electronic heart of gold. Along with them comes Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) a blind monk without Jedi powers but who still believes the Force guides him, his protector Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) who doesn't believe in the Force, and cargo pilot/Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). These are characters very different from the usual cast we see in a Star Wars film, and because they don't fit our preconceived notions of a hero in this universe they're able to go new an interesting stories to tell.
My favorite character in the film was easily Imwe, played with passion and strength by Yen. As a blind monk he, of course, shouldn't be able to see. But maybe because of his faith in the Force or just naturally stronger senses, Imwe is a capable fighter with his staff (which also transforms into a kind of bow-caster). His faith is his strength, but he's contrasted by his friend Malbus, and its watching the two of them debate the Force while still finding strength from each other, that makes the characters so compelling. Yen is an absolute treat in this movie and if they can find a way to bring him back for other movies or shows, somehow or another, I'd love to watch those. Just do a version of Kung Fu with Imwe solving problems across the Galaxy Far Far Away, that would bee awesome.
The other great character is K-2SO because he's played with such comedic timing by Tudyk. In his various scenes with Cassian and Jyn, K2 steals every scene. He's wry, he's funny, and he's played with pathos. With a different voice actor K2 could easily be annoying, something akin to Jar Jar or C3P0. Instead, though, K2 is easily the best character of the main trio.
That might point at Rogue One's other major issue: it's leads just aren't that interesting. Cassian is your basic ruffian hero type, blindly faithful in the Rebellion and devoted to the cause. He's not given any story outside of that, nothing to help shade him or tells us more about his story. We get that kind of detail for Jyn, by contrast, but her character is so wildly inconsistent that it's hard to get any kind of bead on her. She starts off hating everything, Imperial and Rebellion-related, but then suddenly, and for no real reason, she's preaching the power of the Resistance and the need to stop the Death Star no matter what. We're not given reason for this, she's just the heroine of the movie so she has to have a change of heart to keep thee story going.
Part of this issue might be because of the tumultuous development process Rogue One: A Star Wars Story went through. After the initial shooting of the film was in the can, the film underwent extensive re-shoots (five weeks worth) to change many parts of the film. reportedly some of these re-shoots were to change the tone of the film, to meet certain Disney mandates. It's hard to say if Jyn underwent her sudden about-face midway in the film because of these re-shoots (since a Director's Cut of the film was never released) but it's easy to think that some of these re-shoots could have subtly change the movie enough to give it this uneven feel.
Certainly I know that a few Star Wars fans aren't entirely pleased with Rogue One (at least from an informal poll of my friends as well as reading some comments Online). Ranging from the issue with the main character (the uneven way she's written, and ignoring the comment bitching about the fact that she's female) to the fact that the film really isn't necessary -- we know the plan to the Death Star were retrieved for the Rebellion, so do we need to know the intricate details of how? What the point of Rogue One beyond tell a story we already know?
Going through the series along the in-continuity chronological order, though, I come at Rogue One from a different perspective. because of Episode III we see that the Empire is building something huge. This film, then, puts the focus on that weapon, showing us how long it took to build the space station (19 years, as per the official chronology) and the steps needed to take down something that huge. Plus, we get to see the destructive power of the weapon more than once, letting it sink in just how dangerous this gun could be. For a new viewer doing these movies in order, this film doesn't feel superfluous; it's going to feel essential once we get into Episode IV.
So yes, sure, I can see why people might dislike the movie. Despite having warmed to it with this last watching, I can even agree with a number of the slights against it (many of which we just discussed). And yet, despite that, I enjoyed this film. It handles its dark tone better than, say, Episode III and, by and large, features much better acting and effects. Maybe it's inessential to hardcore, long term fans of the series, but for everyone else it's pretty crowd-pleasing (despite having a pretty bleak ending). It's certainly one of the best films in the series (going in order) and knowing what's the come, it sets a good tone for the better films to follow.
Continuity and Issues:
Obviously we discussed at length the Death Star, which appeared in Episode III and then gets blown up in Episode IV. Along with that Imperial weapon we also have Grand Moff Tarkin, a foe of the rebels in part four, originally played by Peter Cushing. For this movie instead of recasting the role they went with a CGI recreation of the actor. When I first saw the film and watched the digital Tarkin on the big screen, he was obviously fake. On the smaller screen though (only 55 inches instead of a monster theater screen), Tarkin didn't look all that bad at all. I do think we would have been better of if Disney had just recast the character, but this solution doesn't look too terrible in hind sight.
In a similar vein, we also have a digital recreation of Princess Leia, who goes on to be a big character in the next trilogy of films. She's thrown in here as an Easter Egg for long time fans (as was Tarkin, of course), but her inclusion doesn't really serve much purpose beyond that. Sure, it's nice to see her (even if she's a digital recreation), but she doesn't really do anything beyond remind us, "oh yeah, she has the plans at the start of the next film." At least Tarkin got to boss people around and chew scenery here.