Movie Review: Rogue One - A Star Wars Story

With the ever-expanding Star Wars franchise already delving into both the past and the future of its original trilogy, the saga finds itself in a happy middle ground once more in this month's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The first spin-off film to spawn from the franchise (minus those early '80s Ewok movies), Rogue One managed to take what was simply the opening crawl of 1977's Star Wars, and turn it into a full-length space adventure. Truly evoking the "wars" in Star Wars, Rogue One's tough and at times grim exterior is reenforced by a noticeable ounce of heart and hope in its motley crew of characters. While it may have to compete to some degree with the likes of 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- as well as the entire saga of films itself -- Rogue One ultimately delivered something fresh and new to the franchise that made the blockbuster saga feel almost complete. 

In a time of civil war, as the Galactic Empire sways into total control of the galaxy with their newest weapon, the Death Star, nearly complete, the Rebel Alliance searches desperately for a way to strike back. Stumbling upon the daughter of a research scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) for the super-weapon, the Rebels enlist in Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) to find her father and discover a weakness in the Empire's greatest stronghold. Joining the ranks of Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), his droid ally K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and a band of other rebels, Jyn must plunge into her dark past in order to find her father and uncover the secrets behind the Empire's deadliest weapon. Little do the rebels know, that to do so, they must confront not only their own inner demons, but also to the vile likes of Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Grand Moff Tarkin, and the shadowy agent of evil, Darth Vader. 

Growing up with the (at the time) enthralling prequel trilogy from Star Wars creator George Lucas as my first taste of Star Wars, and eventually diving into the coveted original trilogy, the space opera franchise of aliens, Jedi, and speeding starships has always been a favorite of mine. As time passed,  with the original trilogy manifesting into sci-fi classics, and the prequel trilogy falling into a dark abyss of negative criticism, I still retained my passion and eagerness to see just where the space saga would go next. While a follow-up to 1983's Return of the Jedi felt almost impossible back in the early 2000s, my disbelief was immensely broken as 2015 saw the resurgence of the franchise and its original cast in The Force Awakens. Paving the path towards further sequels, prequels, and possible spin-offs as creator George Lucas sold the rights to the franchise to Disney in 2012, the future of Star Wars looked to be a bright and wealthy one. Still, however, the prospects for what George Lucas and Disney had in mind was shrouded in intense mystery. Now, to my surprise, the franchise once again delivered the unexpected, as its risky yet intriguing plunge into the past in Rogue One made for a fantastic expansion of the Star Wars story.

While it may not have garnered as much buzz throughout the year as Episode VII did last year -- the hype only truly picking up as December neared closer -- the first official Star Wars spin-off film Rogue One nevertheless beckoned to my love of the franchise, its intriguing premise offering not only some insight to what occurs right before 1977's A New Hope, but also how the project really sets the tone for what the original Star Wars was. Delivering just what we've come to expect in a Star Wars film, from the outer space atmospherics to its colorful band of witty and rebellious characters, Rogue One managed to recapture the magic of what the originals had, while also expanding on new territory that truly fleshed out some of the franchise's newest and most mysterious characters.

While its cast may not stand up that well against the likes of Luke Skywalker, Yoda, or even Rey in terms of memorability -- its leading lady in Felicity Jones manifesting into the only semi-compelling hero of the film -- Rogue One did flaunt its effective performances well throughout the film. Aside from Jones, whose sharp rebel Jyn Erso and her daddy issues managed to provide an endearing, emotional backdrop to the film's war-torn feel, a handful of other protagonists also stood out. From Donnie Yen's spirited warrior Chirrut to Diego Luna's hard-edged Cassian Andor, a number of surprises sprung from the cast as each delivered a favorable ounce of emotion to their characters. However, the true star had to be Alan Tudyk's fantastic take as the satirical droid, K-2SO, offering a mechanical yet vibrant likeness to this film's version of the likable droid ally like that of BB-8, C-3PO, and R2-D2.

That being said, when talking about the cast of the film, it would be criminal for me not to mention the villains in the room, who ultimately keep the starship in line when the heroes can't. While I'll refrain from spoiling too much off the story, I will say that one of the most compelling characters in the film was not the vile Director Krennic, nor the formidable presence of Darth Vader, but rather the digital recreation of Peter Cushing's potent antagonist Grand Moff Tarkin. While Ben Mendelsohn's ruthless admiral in Orson Krennic may have been mildly entertaining, and the return of the iconic voice of James Earl Jones as Vader may have been awe-inspiring, seeing the face of the late Peter Cushing revived on the big-screen to lay silent vengeance upon the rebels was a true treat for any fan of the original trilogy.

While its plot may veer into familiar or predictable territory at times, another of the film's major highlights had to be its action sequences. While it may be truly difficult to tally up the greatest action scenes in the Star Wars franchise -- whether it be the Millennium Falcon dodging asteroids and Imperial fighters, Luke jettisoning through the trenches of the Death Star, or the epic battle between the Ewoks and the easily-trampled Stormtroopers on Endor (which wasn't so epic) -- Rogue One definitely upped the ante in terms of true Star Wars action. With its third act giving way to all-out war between the small band of rebels and the Empire, the film delivered a fantastically nerve-racking set piece of action and adventure, all on the backdrop of a Saving Private Ryan-esque battle scene. Accompanying said action as well, had to be some of the best cinematography I've ever scene in a Star Wars film. Making the action sequences as enthralling as possible, but also injecting a stylized and unique tone to the quieter scenes of the film, the cinematography made this story, and its action, incredible to watch unfold.

Overall, with its dynamic blend of nostalgia, impeccable special effects and action, and decent character development, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the prequel that fans of the franchise deserved. While the prequel trilogy may not be the worst thing in the galaxy, Rogue One proved not only that another Star Wars prequel could still work, but also that some of the best films in the franchise can come from new and pioneering directors other than George Lucas. In respect to the past and the breathtaking universe Lucas has expertly crafted, I truly see Rogue One (as well as The Force Awakens) to be a step in the right direction for the space-age franchise. Giving the reins to fresh eyes who are ready to take risks and tweak things, while still retaining a light touch of the past, is what makes Star Wars one of the best and most fascinating franchises still around today. With that, Rogue One now sits as one of my favorite films from the saga.

I gave Rogue One: A Star Wars Story an 8 out of 10 for its incredible revival of characters like Tarkin and Vader, its phenomenal display of action and adventure with just the right amount of heart and hope, and its audacity to take a simple paragraph in 1977 and turn it into something that could stand among the stars.    


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