Let’s get this out of the way first–
So, I held off seeing Rogue One for two whole weeks for several reasons– I hate opening night crowds, I’ve spent the last two weeks helping support a family member who’s been in the hospital, and because, being the spoiler-whore I am, I knew it ended on what might possibly be a real downer, and I knew that I didn’t need any extra downers in my life at the moment.
At least regarding the last item I needn’t have worried. Rogue One does end with all the good guys, including leads Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), dying in a terminal shootout/holocaust with the Empire on the planet Scarif, but it’s the sort of massacre that appeals to me, where the heroes have won although they give their lives in the attempt. In this instance, they have secured the plans to the Death Star of Episode IV- A New Hope and transmitted them to the rebels, which means that the end of Rogue One is meant to segue directly into the opening of Episode IV, with perhaps the lapse of only a few minutes story time.
The film, in my quite biased opinion, does most everything pretty well. It has a darker, grittier tone than most of the other Star Wars films; the Empire has the galaxy by the throat and is about to permanently tighten its grip. The rebel Alliance is on the run, fractured and riven by divisions and conflicting counsels. You’re not entirely sure who the good guys are; Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera is the paranoid leader of a splinter group too radical for the other rebels, and some Alliance members are willing do things in the name of the Rebellion that are morally dodgy, at best; Cassian, for example, summarily kills an informant in the first moments of the film to keep him out of Imperial hands.
The story bounces from world to world, shifting between Rebel and Imperial viewpoints, as the rebels get wind of the Death Star and desperately try to find clues as to its weaknesses. Rook, defecting, delivers a message from Jyn’s father, Galen Erso, an engineer the Empire has forced to work on the Death Star, who has built a vulnerability into its structure. In the end, Jyn and Cassian lead a desperate group of volunteers to the planet Scarif, where the plans for the Death Star are kept. There ensues one hellacious ground and space battle, as the Rebel fleet joins in and Jyn, Cassian and the droid K2SO try to get the plans. In the end, the plans are secured and transmitted to the rebels just before the Death Star nukes the Empire’s own base in a vain attempt to keep the information safe.
All the flim’s performances are good, but it’s some of the supporting characters who are the best. Jyn and Cassian are not quite as engaging or sympathetic as we might want; on the other hand, you find yourself rooting pretty hard for the blind Force monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donny Yen) and his buddy Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang); the defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is someone we watch become a hero in his own right as he overcomes his fear. The reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is fun, light-years away from the obsequious C3PO, and has his own hero moment toward the end of the film.
All-in-all, the film captures the desperate struggle of the rebels against the overwhelming power of the Empire. ‘Rag-tag’ is pretty apt for these guys, who only agree on a united course of action when it is forced on them. The battles are solid action pieces, and the power of the Death Star, even when only employed on low power against individual targets on planet surfaces, is jaw-dropping.
There are problems. The connection the end of the film makes with the beginning of A New Hope is less than perfect in terms of continuity. In Episode IV when Leia confronts Vader for the first time she pretends that her ship is on a diplomatic mission; Rogue One’s ending makes that pretense unsustainable (or even nonsensical), as her ship is shown detaching from the crippled rebel flagship and fleeing, as Vader watches. Episode IV’s screen-crawl states the rebels have won their first victory against the Empire; if the battle over Scarif is a rebel victory it sure looks Pyrrhic; all of the ground forces were lost, and what looked to be a good portion of the space fleet– not a good way to start a civil war.
And then there are the CGI images for the Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia. Personally I think I was able to suspend my disbelief enough that they didn’t throw me, but they were odd, particularly Leia’s; for the brief moment we see her face, she kinda looks like an anime Kewpie Doll. It’s strange how the images turned out, especially as a lot of effort was expended to get them right, particularly Tarkin’s (Peter Cushing).
On the whole, though, the film works, and works well. This may be the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. Certainly it leaves the prequels and The Force Awakens in the dust. This is the first of a projected set of “anthology” films about different characters and situations in the extended cinematic Star Wars universe that are not part of the main trilogies. As this expansion proceeds, we are liable to get both good and bad films . Rogue One, thankfully, starts the anthology off right.