Spoiler Warning: I am about to ruin this movie for you.
Rogue One is finally out, and Disney has finally broken the seal on producing a live action film outside of the core Skywalker saga. Like The Force Awakens, my initial reaction to the film was complicated and conflicted. It took me five viewings of The Phantom Menace for example to finally admit to myself what I knew in my heart all along: that was a really bad movie. After seeing The Force Awakens I didn’t want to make the same mistake: did I like this because it is a good movie, or simply because it is Star Wars? So I was very critical of the film. But was I over compensating in my critique to account for my clear Star Wars bias?
I felt the same way after seeing Rogue One. I have seen the movie twice now, and have calmed down from the initial excitement of it all, and I think I can finally speak relatively soberly about the movie. And I say “relatively” because at the end of the day I am a fan, and it is hard for me to treat Star Wars just like any other movie. So consider this a fan's review for fellow fans.
A gift to every Star Wars fan
What is exciting about this movie at its core, is that it takes us back to the movie that started it all, and makes A New Hope, and arguably the entire original trilogy a richer movie experience in the process. And that is saying something, because A New Hope is iconic to nearly biblical proportions — not just cinematically, but on a deeply personal level for me and so many Star Wars fans of my generation.
As a result, the stakes couldn’t be higher for this film; a lot could have gone wrong, especially in light of the re-shoots that took place late in the game and the resulting rumors about the integrity of the story. Now that the movie is out, we finally have some sense for the scale of these reshoots and the legitimacy of people’s initial worry, but I think it is safe to say that any anxiety people may had can be put aside. Rogue One works.
Rogue One was a gift to Star Wars fans not just because it lets us revisit so many of our favorite, characters, but because it made Star Wars: A New Hope a better movie in the process.
The best thing I can say is that Rogue One delivers so much delight for fans without ever being heavy handed about it. It is chock-a-block full of moments that had me pulling on the sleeve of the friend sitting next to me and, whispering, “yeeeees” — from brushing past Dr. Cornelius Evazan, who you may remember as the man Obi Wan cuts down in the Mos Eisley cantina, the paging of General Syndulla on Yavin 4 along with multiple sightings of her ship Ghost from the Star Wars Rebels TV series, to the familiar appearances of Gold Leader and Red Leader, to Bail Organa, and of course R2D2 and C3P0.
And those were just the cameos. There were a number of other notable appearances by major characters as well that no one anticipated. Going into the film, I assumed that these characters would have to have been cleverly edited out or around given that many of the original actors have died, or would obviously have been too old to reprise their role. Then there was that moment when I saw the back of Grand Moff Tarkin’s head and I thought to myself, “I wonder who did they got to play Tarkin?” And then, he turns around and you see Peter Cushing in all his glory.
In that moment early in the film, I got the immediate sense that this film was going to integrate itself into the core epic in a number of surprising ways. Plus, having virtually resurrected an actor from the dead to reprise a role, I knew then that Rogue One might very well be remembered for having changed filmmaking as we know it.
A [better] New Hope
Rogue One was a gift to Star Wars fans not just because it lets us revisit and experience so many of our favorite, albeit small, characters, but because in some ways it made Star Wars: A New Hope a better movie in the process.
The closing of a gigantic whomp rat-sized plot hole
Long on the list of palm-to-forehead gripes I have with Star Wars is the gigantic plot hole with how the Death Star was destroyed. The idea, that something so massive, and took so many resources to build could be engineered to have a weakness so absolutely and devastatingly obvious defied all logic. The ease with which a single torpedo blew up the entire Death Star weakened the original film by revealing an amateurish quality to A New Hope’s writing.
Enter Rogue One. In a couple simple lines of dialogue, the ridiculousness of it all is not just excused, it is completely justified. The weakness was not an oversight of the Empire, or even the result of a poor screenplay, it was purposeful — it was an act of sabotage. Of rebellion, fifteen years in the making.
Vader is a bad ass
Also on that list of gripes was the fact that the ultimate battle between Vader and Obi Wan was so absolutely flaccid; a fact that was only amplified by the prequels and The Clone Wars in which both Anakin and Obi Wan were portrayed as true masters of their craft. As fans we made excuses like, “well Vader and Obi Wan are older in A New Hope,” to cover up the fact that Lucas made a really lame fight scene.
When you think about it: at no point in the original trilogy do we see Vader really show that he is a force to be reckoned with beyond his ability to force choke a few people.
And then you see the end of Rogue One, and Vader, for the first time he is not only menacing, he is terrifying in his brutality. He is someone to truly fear.
Red Shirts no more
Rogue One takes many of the characters that existed in the background of the original trilogy and gave them a greater depth, and purpose. It gave the audience an appreciation for these relative disposable characters as people who each had their own story, and their own reason to fight. It made me appreciate that all the people in the background on Yavin 4 in A New Hope are people who had, as recently as a couple days ago, lost friends, and as people who have been fighting this war for a long time. It gave all of these characters a little more depth, and their sacrifice more gravity.
A different kind of Star Wars
I do not envy the challenge Gareth Edwards must have had in making this film. As the first director to create a live-action movie outside the core Skywalker saga, he was setting a lot of precedents. He needed to decide exactly how to break with long established conventions fans love so that he could help define what makes a “Star Wars Story” different from the core epic.
Gone for example is the opening crawl. The Star Wars theme music is also missing. The typefaces are different. Planets and locations on screen are labeled with text. They even abandoned the iconic wipe transition effect between shots. These may seem small and inconsequential, but as a fan, they preoccupied me, and acted as a kind of subconscious speed bump — pulling me out of the action for a film for a second.
This is the first of many non-Skywalker Star Wars stories, and I expect each of these movies to push the boundaries of the Star Wars movie template, and strive to differentiate itself from the others. And this is a good thing. Rogue One, however, being the first to break from tradition, has the highest toll to pay in this regard.
A two hour prologue
What is ultimately disappointing about the film is that it didn’t expand the scope of the Star Wars universe in the ways that the films of the original trilogy, and The Force Awakens did. Those films, in an almost Tolkein-esque way, has these relatively inconsequential lines that teased at larger stories that want to be told. They each left audiences with questions like, what were the Clone Wars? What happened to Han and the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell? Why is there still a Resistance, even though the Rebellion won the war?
There is almost none of that mystery in Rogue One. It was a movie designed to be fully self-contained. Its boundaries were set, and there was to be no venturing outside them, now or in the future. In this way, Rogue One is little more than a two-hour prologue to A New Hope.
In short: a good Star Wars story.
For now Rogue One will probably rank relatively high amongst Star Wars fans — older and younger generations alike. While the movie, on its own lacks the mythos and grandeur of the original trilogy, it is now hard to imagine how one could watch A New Hope without watching this one first. Because what I feel is the movie’s greatest weakness, that it is just a well told prologue is ironically also its greatest strength: it brings greater weight and significance to the movie designed to follow it.