We saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story last weekend at our local recliner-equipped cinema. The theater was packed and there was quite mix of movie-goers: families with little kids, middle-aged fans there for the fun, and groups of people, usually in twos or threes, that seemed taut with an intensity that might only be called fan-pensive; they came to enjoy but were ready to critique. I’m not a die-hard Star Wars fan, I enjoy most of the films for what they are: heavy space opera that offer many thrills, good laughs, and the occasional forays into pop-philosophy all set against a marvelous tapestry. Outside of two Star Wars novels I read in 1977 I know very little of the Expanded Universe, details about the Rebellion, or the inner life of one Darth Vader.
So I’m coming at this as someone who loves science fiction but has a limited depth of knowledge about the Star Wars Universe. Sure, I can name ship types and planets. I know what the Book of the Whills is and what a Khyber crystal does. But for other areas beyond the stories encapsulated in the films and those two books I read long ago I will always yield to more knowledgeable fans. So, consider this my approach to this little film review: benign reflection.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a good film. It was directed by Gareth Edwards with screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. The details and storyline were well done. The level of work involved on even the minutiae like languages or backgrounds is very impressive. I enjoyed the actors’ performances and I felt Diego Luna did a fabulous job as Cassian Andor. An opening scene set the tone for his character. He and the actor who played an informant worked the scene like the start of a Shakespeare play, with narration replacing on-stage action. It was tense, gritty, and superbly done. It also established Captain Andor as a rather tragic figure. His climb up a ladder at the scene’s end suggested a possible ascent toward redemption. Indeed, I don’t think I give too much away if I say that this was how the film eventually played out.
Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso had to maintain an almost frantic pace throughout the film as her character migrated from one physical or personal skirmish to the next. Like Cassian Andor, Jyn Erso is a troubled but tough character and Ms. Jones plays this exceptionally well. I liked how she established the character in her opening scenes: quite resilient if not world-weary. She had seen ample difficulties but always forged ahead, keeping up hope that she might one day find closure with the losses of her past life.
The supporting cast was quite good. Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook was my personal favorite. I liked how his character was developed through the film and I found his performance quite believable. He balanced the complexities of Bodhi as an Imperial traitor against the fact that Bodhi was, at the core, just an everyman with a conscience caught up in events that were far bigger than the worlds that served as backdrops in this movie. In addition, Alan Tudyk and Donnie Yen pretty much owned their roles. They were intriguing characters unto themselves, and not just sidekicks.
This being a Star Wars film I found the personal interplay between some of the characters a bit stiff. I found a real low point in the interactions of Jyn Erso and the unfortunately named Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker. Mr. Whitaker’s immense talents seemed lost in this film, either through the writing or directing or some combination of both. Although Gerrera rescued Jyn as a child and subsequently raised her, I had the impression the two had only just met. It was a road bump in the film and I was glad when the story just moved along. That being said Jimmy Smits as the senator named Bail Organa offered a line of dialogue about his adopted daughter Leia. One line, one moment, but the way it was delivered actually brought tears to my eyes.
One thing I will say about Rogue One was that it presented the Rebel Alliance in a very different light. Without offering spoilers the Rebels in this movie were in it for the win and definitely played hard ball. Over and over again, through the actions of the supporting cast, I realized that these guys were in it for keeps. To that end I felt that Rogue One added a certain vitality to the franchise and made me appreciate this complex backstory as an important part of the combined films’ overall dramatic arc. Indeed, Rogue One owes its lineage to such movies as The Guns of Navarone and Seven Samurai as much as it does to the creativity of George Lucas and the team at Lucasfilm/Disney. The plot was tense, gritty, and offered the characters no do-overs via the magical use of The Force.
The Force was definitely with the creative team and I liked how the film had a certain look that was reminiscent of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope. The creators did not seem to go exclusively with green screens and CGI. Everything appeared tangible and alive. The one obvious exception was the use of CGI to animate Peter Cushing’s face over that of an actor named Guy Henry. This was exceptional and somewhat mind blowing, especially as Peter Cushing, who created the role of the despicable Grand Moff Tarkin, passed away in 1994. People who knew Cushing who have seen the film, including those who maintain his estate, were reportedly heavily involved with the development of this reanimated character. Many said it was quite “dazzling” to see Cushing back on screen.
I felt the effect was well done and Tarkin needed to appear in this story. Indeed, Tarkin’s presence was critical to the plot. However, given what a great job Ben Mendelsohn did in creating the new character of the Imperial officer Krennic, I am left wondering why someone else couldn’t have stepped in as Tarkin. I know this is complicated, especially for “real” fans whose toes I wouldn’t step on, but after a while I did find the CGI Tarkin rather distracting. I kept thinking of his appearances in terms of levels of realism and not the performance itself.
Note that I did see this film shortly after Carrie Fisher’s recent death. So I’ll say that my next viewpoint was undoubtedly impacted by that event. That being said the arrival at the very end of the film by another famous but CGI-rendered character was jarring. I really think it would have been best to take a different tack cinematically, especially with such an important character as Princess Leia. I can recognize a costume, voice, and persona without seeing a face. For me, this addition did not allow the film to end on a good note and actually stole something from the last scene with Luna and Jones.
So, overall, I found this film fun with some excellent moments, but it fell down in places so I would give it 4/5 stars.