Film Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Though pacing and character issues keep this 'Star Wars' spinoff from reaching its full potential, director Gareth Edwards still turns in a more-than-worthy addition to the galaxy far far away.
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Disney makes its second foray into the franchise that George Lucas built with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which takes a step back from the new stories and characters introduced in last year’s The Force Awakens to refocus on the time period presented in Lucas’ original trilogy. Or, rather, on the time period right before it: This time around, a team of Rebels led by the street-smart Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and stoic, duty-bound intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) are after the plans to a scary-sounding super-weapon that the Empire, led by the ambitious Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), is cooking up.

We know where the story goes (uh, spoilers for Star Wars?): The plans are retrieved, and a towheaded farm boy named Luke Skywalker swoops in to destroy the Death Star and save the day. It’s to the credit of director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, then, that Rogue One is still engaging and at times even suspenseful despite this predetermined outcome. (Looking at you, prequels. Looking at you very, very judgmentally.)

The main draw of Rogue One is that, where previous Star Wars movies present an epic, mythology-heavy Skywalker family saga that’s right out of Joseph Campbell, here we get a scrappy, pared-down tale where the focus is on people not with grand destinies, but who toil in the background on tasks largely devoid of glory and plaudits. Rogue One is very much a war movie, with all the battles, behind-enemy-lines intrigue and high stakes that implies.

There are flaws, of course: Rogue One is good, but it’s no The Empire Strikes Back. Most visible among them is the decision to devote substantial screen time to a CGI recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin, played in the first Star Wars film by the late, great Peter Cushing. Holy uncanny valley, Batman! It’s…not good. Movies and TV shows over the past few years have used similar tech to bring to life younger versions of Robert Downey, Jr. (Captain America: Civil War), Anthony Hopkins (“Westworld”) and Michael Douglas (Ant-Man), but the filmmakers generally have better sense than to focus the camera on those just-too-unrealistic digital creations for any substantial length of time. Rogue One’s callbacks to the original trilogy are generally well-done, natural-feeling as opposed to shoehorned in, but creepy plastic Peter Cushing is a major misfire.

Less visible, but a bigger missed opportunity, is the lack of the sort of pre-battle comrades-sharing-stories-around-a-campfire scenes (or, well, in a spaceship) that would have provided a better insight into Rogue One’s band of misfit brothers. There are tantalizing hints to character backstories that are never explored, the movie rushing past quieter moments en route to a full-on (and admittedly thrilling) third-act showdown.

That said, the fact that one leaves Rogue One wanting more information about the protagonists than one gets—though frustrating—is also a testament to the film’s ability to craft compelling characters and draw the audience into its world. The acting is all top-notch, with Luna, Jones (playing against type as a character more snarky than sweet) and Disney voiceover stalwart Alan Tudyk, playing a delightfully sarcastic droid, as particular standouts.

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