by Michael Henley
What is a hero? For millions of kids who grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, this answer is easy. Heroes are your Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias and Han Solos. They’re swashbucklers and sharpshooters and leaders and fighter pilots. They’re the ones who blow up fortresses and have daring escapes. The ones who kiss the boy or girl and get the medal and battle the villains and save the day over and over again. And if Star Wars is a modern update of a fairy tale (which it is), then these individuals come from a long line of valiant knights and lords and princes who slay the dragon, vanquish the wicked king and save the lands from darkness. They overcome struggles and they win. It’s fun to imagine being this kind of hero.
But as we all know, there are other kinds of heroes. The kind who live within the cracks and shadows of these fairy tales, and their lives are moral grey areas. They’re the kind of folks who have to choose to commit themselves to a cause, and then sometimes ultimately have to sacrifice hugely to see the cause live on. These are the background players in fairy tales—the folks who “swell a progress, start a scene or two,” to borrow a phrase. The kind of unknown, heretefore-uncelebrated heroes who, for example, are mentioned briefly in an opening paragraph of exposition in 1977 and then have their story untold for almost 40 years.
Rogue One, instead of being an immediate followup to last year’s Force Awakens (that’s coming next Christmas), is a trip forward to the past; an expedition to the fringes of the tale so that we can pick at the edges. It’s a sequel-prequel side story that takes place after Episode III (2005’s Revenge of the Sith) and slides into the original 1977 Star Wars (Episode IV) so directly that you could chop out both pictures’ credits and push play without missing a beat. “During the battle,” the opening 1977 text said, “rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, The Death Star.” You remember the Death Star, of course. Now let’s back up and talk about those spies. You may remember Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s play about those two bit players from Hamlet, and what they were up to while offstage from the main event. If Luke Skywalker is Hamlet, then Rogue One is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Go To War.
In fleshing out this little strand of backstory, Rogue One chooses to shed a lot of the trappings and tropes that Star Wars movies traditionally utilize. It’s step one in an experiment for Lucasfilm (now a Disney company) to play with the Star Wars house style and diversify. Rogue One is properly named because it’s not an “episode,” (those are strictly about the Skywalker clan, sorta). It is instead a spinoff story that departs in structure (it lacks the traditional Star Wars musical sting and title crawl), in production details (it’s the first Wars film not scored by John Williams but instead is handled by A-list composer Michael Giacchino), and—most crucially—in tone.
It’s a grim bit of storytelling, arguably the bleakest in the franchise, which is appropriate. This is a yarn about desperation, and staying one step ahead of despair. It focuses on spies, saboteurs and assassins, with nary a Jedi in sight. The Force is still present, but for these folks belief in it is less of a vocation and more of an unorthodox lifestyle choice. And this is all told with the chaotic urgency of a cracking war film; despite its bloodless nature, this is still an aggressively violent motion picture, and parents should know that. If you want Star Wars that sings with the pop joy of Force Awakens, be warned: these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
Even the movie’s opening (after that no-crawl) is a formal departure, because we begin with a temporally displaced prologue, We meet Galen Erso (Madds Mikkelsen), a scientist hiding on a wasteland planet marked by sea and striking black sands. He’s found by an evil Empire landing party led by Orson Krennic (an oily, unctuous Ben Mendelsohn). Krennic, an ambitious Imperial stooge with designs on climbing the autocracy’s ladder, captures a defiant Galen and promises to sweep him and his family into the luxury promised to all helpful collaborators, because he’s needed to perfect the Empire’s ultimate weapon. All in the name of peace, he says. “You’re confusing peace with terror,” whispers Galen. Krennic’s smug response: “Well, you have to start somewhere.” Not that this movie’s political or anything, or at all inadvertently—and perfectly—timely in its taking a stand against fascism, warmongering and oppression. No, no, of course not.
Anyway, Galen’s wife is killed and his daughter, Jyn, escapes into the wilderness. And then she grows up to become a flinty Felicity Jones, a street rat and criminal who is broken out of prison and hauled before an Alliance briefing led by the regal and composed Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly). Jyn, it seems, is the only person who can get through to a crazed Rebellion general named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, playing a hand-me down character from elsewhere in Wars canon), who is bunkered in the holy desert city of Jedda. Jyn’s history with Saw is important, because the general has come into possession of a secret message from Galen, who Jyn hasn’t heard from in decades. Now nominally working for the Empire, Galen has engineered a proper revenge for the Imperial in dish-best-served-cold format: a built-in design flaw in the Death Star that, once found and decoded from a series of elaborate technical blueprints, could be the key to its undoing. Yes, this movie reverse-engineers a reason for how in the world a superweapon could be designed so incompetently that Luke Skywalker could kill it with a couple well-timed torpedoes down an exhaust port in 1977—quite cleverly, I might add.
The original Star Wars was famous for its oft-kilter structure (stolen from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress) which shifted perspectives as it collected characters like lint: we go from droids to farmboy to space pilot to princess. Rogue One operates similarly, as Jyn ends up forming a team of spies and soldiers. But the acquisitions are pointedly—and poignantly—bit players in the saga and work on the ground level. They’re effectively peons, far removed from ivory Jedi towers, “chosen one” prophecies or twisty ancestries. They have no secret privileges they stumble into. They’re us, in a way, and the movie makes its priorities manifest during a pointed visual moment when our tiny heroes traverse the desert by passing by a toppled Jedi statue: with no supermen left in the world, these normal folk will have to do.
So here’s the roster. There’s Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a conflicted assassin who has been in the Alliance for years and feels every ounce of its weight. We have Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, a former Imperial pilot turned defector. And there’s Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind man and steadfast Force-believer (perhaps he’s legitimately Force sensitive?) who can take out half an imperial squadron with his stick, while his companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) can help with the other half by using a gattling-gun-style blaster.
Rounding out our heroes is a reprogrammed imperial droid named K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) who is handy in a struggle but also prissy and passive aggressive and gets some of the best jokes through his tendency to blurt out factual information at the worst possible time (When Cassian chooses to trust Jyn with a blaster, K-2 is not-so-quietly appalled: “Would you like to know the chances of her using that on you? They’re high.”) And meanwhile back at home base, Mon Mothma has her own problems with different Alliance factions; as befitting a prequel, the movie quite nicely dramatizes the early forming of rebellion, rife with plausible power struggles and squabbling (it’s the advent of the Death Star, appropriately enough, that galvanizes these groups and forces them to get on the same page).
Allied against them are your standard-issue Star Wars bad guys. There’s your typical squads of stormtroopers that—comfortingly—still can’t hit the broadside of a barn except when the plot demands it. And we discussed Krennic, who Mendelson plays with a knowing bigness. It’s a sneering, wry British pantomime of a performance as Krennic’s plans crumble around him: the Death Star is his baby, now he’s a victim of bog standard office politics, as administrators smoothly step in to take the credit. That threat is personified by Peter Cushing’s Governor Tarkin, a reprise of a role that is quite surprising, especially because Cushing died in 1994. Here he’s resurrected with CGI that makes him look sort of like he stepped off the Polar Express. How heartbreaking for the Hammer Films icon to suddenly have found himself as one of the walking undead. It’s a pretty good effect, honestly, although one that wears the more you look it, and it raises ethical considerations. Couldn’t they have just recast?
Then, of course, there’s Darth Vader, with James Earl Jones once again reprising his iconic voice work. His appearances in Rogue One are brief but memorable—the movie wisely knows a little of Vader goes a long way, and uses him as a spice. He has an impressive entrance granting an audience from his home castle on a lava planet, and later on he joins the battle with a horrific scene (shot with a refreshingly greater degree of sympathy for the doomed soldiers who have the misfortune to meet him). Vader fans will not be disappointed.
What does disappoint—just a little—is that ultimately Rogue One might be slightly too ambitious a movie for its own good. The first half is choppy and some of the character-building goes AWOL; we get enough of a sense of who these people are, but each one feels like they’re missing maybe a beat or two. Jyn is engaging and scrappy, but her motivations (going from apolitical criminal to idealist) become muddied slightly in the telling, despite the impressive physicality and presence that Jones brings to the role. We get hints of Cassian’s backstory and Luna is up to the challenge, but I could have used a little more there, and Bodhi, despite Ahmed’s always welcome participation, feels consistently like more of a cipher than a character. The film’s biggest assets are Chirrut and Baze, who are practically symbiotic in their partnership and exude an infectious, unshowy charisma (Yen’s smile as he blindly wields the Force in pursuit of increasingly noble goals is the film’s most quantifiable source of joy).
The film’s second half, however, in which the team’s circumstances get more dire and yet their resolve is forced to grow, is wonderful. It culminates in a chaotic land battle on a tropical planet where the sands and shores evoke war footage of Normandy, only with laser weapons and lumbering walkers towering over our heroes. In these closing moments (crosscut with the inevitable but well-done space battle in the skies above), the real heroism and valor is pleasingly conveyed. This is excellent action filmmaking in its energy and scope and grandeur, and although the film follows time-honored blockbuster rules (including the one where the hero with the blood oath must square off against their one mortal enemy), it subverts others, and the true climax is heartfelt and surprisingly poignant. I’m tiptoeing around spoilers here, which is pretty remarkable for a movie that ends literally where another one begins that we all know by heart. But there we are.
The director here is Gareth Edwards, who made the indie gem Monsters, which is a practical textbook in making an effective special effects picture with no budget. Then he graduated to the big leagues with 2014’s Godzilla, a movie that was almost puckish in its desire to delay payoffs (some found it frustrating, but I found it delightful). Throughout his short career, Edwards has shown a real talent as a visual stylist, and here with his cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), he composes some lovely images—ones that show incredible scale and size while still staying intimate–he pays just as much attention to the dirty hands of a hero as he does to a colossal world-building. His locations (the black landscape of the prologue, or a later-seen world made entirely of canyons and rain) are more imaginative than the places we got in J.J. Abrams’ Force Awakens, but the tradeoff is his relative unease with actors; the characters, ultimately, don’t quite pop with the vibrancy that Rey, Finn and Poe did in The Force Awakens. It gets better as it goes along, though, perhaps due to an assist from uncredited director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), who was brought in to supervise late-game reshoots in order to bring the film up to snuff; Gilroy retains a screenplay credit for the film.
But perhaps it’s fitting that Rogue One’s characters don’t quite reach iconic status, because that’s sort of the point. This gritty, morally challenging and very entertaining movie, a one-shot Star Wars story that fills in backstory and ends up as a salute to forgotten heroes (producer Kathleen Kennedy has already said there will not be a sequel) gains additional weight, paradoxically, from its minor-key status. There’s always been plenty of gunplay and dogfights in Star Wars up until now, but by focusing on the types of heroes we usually glance at before cutting back to the heroes, the War portion here is most keenly felt, and it imbues the saga’s lightweight shenanigans with a stronger moral conscience. This dichotomy, these shades of grey grafted onto the simplicity of Star Wars, arguably doesn’t clash with the existing saga—it ends up making what follows somehow more urgent and thoughtful.
Of course some things never change. “I have a bad feeling about this,” someone says at some point, before another person shuts them up. And, of course, would it even be Star Wars without a character saying “May the Force be with you?” But there’s a bittersweet gravitas to that this time, because Rogue One is a movie that scratches the surface of Star Wars lore and finds a buried, compelling fatalism with resonance to our own world, especially now. In other words, it’s great that the Force is with you…if you believe in it. But if you don’t you best believe in something, because in the end that belief might be all the reward that you get. There’s a word for the kind of person who devotes themselves to a good with that knowledge in mind. And the word is hero.