Disney and Lucasfilm delved back into the cash cow that is the Star Wars film franchise with the 2015 release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That film made over $2 billion worldwide before exiting theaters, proving beyond any doubt there’s still an appetite for tales from a galaxy far, far away. However, unlike The Force Awakens, 2016’s Star Wars offering – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – is a standalone film that features only very, very brief appearances by established Star Wars players.
Rogue One travels back in time to tell the story of how the plans for the Death Star wound up in the possession of the Rebels, introducing brand new players to the universe as the previously untold story unfolds. This new Star Wars prequel/standalone film (that’s also a sequel) is easy enough to understand, even for casual fans of Star Wars. The Death Star has been built and the Rebels must find a way to disable it before the Empire begins using it to destroy planets with Rebel bases. Pivotal to the events that play out in Rogue One is yet another strong female fighter, the reluctant hero Jyn Erso, played with ferocity by Felicity Jones.
Jyn Erso’s forcefully, at first, recruited to work with the Rebels because they believe she’s their ticket to finding her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who’s working on the Death Star for the Empire. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his comic relief sidekick, K-2S0 (Rogue One’s version of C-3PO), are tasked with guiding the mission and convincing Jyn to help out. Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a strong believer in the Force, and his best friend/protector Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), join Jyn and Cassian’s mission, becoming key players in the quest for the Death Star’s plans. Bodhi Rook (The Night Of’s Riz Ahmed) fills out the small group of Rebels responsible for leading the mission to extract the plans that reveal the secret to destroying the Death Star.
Stand-out performances among the supporting players include Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, the most interesting villain to be introduced in either The Force Awakens or Rogue One. Mendelsohn wears a white cape which whips around dramatically as he stomps through the sets, and really all that’s missing to this callback to classic movie villains is a little mustache-twirling and eyebrow lifting. And Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, and Riz Ahmed make their supporting characters ones that we not only come to like and root for, but also wish we could spend a little more time getting to know.
As bizarre as it sounds, Peter Cushing also delivers a great performance as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One. Cushing doesn’t actually appear in the film (he passed away in 1994), however through what was obviously painstaking work by Industrial Light and Magic’s team, Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin once again lives on screen.
A gritty, down-and-dirty Star Wars movie that feels like a Vietnam or WWII war film at times, this standalone prequel/sequel takes a few beats to get going but once it does, Star Wars fans are taken on an intense, thrilling ride. There’s infighting among the Rebels and among the Empire’s higher-ups, and cheering in the audience when a familiar heavy-breathing villain appears on screen. (That’s not a spoiler as he’s featured on the poster.) Unlike 2015’s The Force Awakens, Rogue One’s plot isn’t a rehash of any previous Star Wars film and instead is a creative and entertaining introduction to a group of rebels whose actions built the foundation for films in the Star Wars franchise that followed behind it in the timeline (in other words, Episodes IV, V, VI, and The Force Awakens).
Directed by Godzilla’s Gareth Edwards, Rogue One features outstanding CG work and special effects, although surprisingly the battles in space are not quite as dynamic as the war on the ground between the Rebel Alliance troops and the Empire’s Storm Troopers. But, none of the effects would amount to much if it weren’t for the terrific performance delivered by Felicity Jones. Jones delivers a stellar performance as the latest heroine of the Star Wars world, engaging the audience emotionally and proving to be a kick-ass action star as well.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn’t impress me as the plot and action were recycled from other films of the franchise, but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story turned out to be proof there is artistic storytelling life still left in this nearly 40-year-old franchise.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: December 16, 2016