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‘Rogue One’ puts the “War” Back in Star Wars (Spoiler Free Review)

By Dan Cava

December 13, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has been billed as a standalone story, but that’s a bit misleading. Situated between episodes III and IV, the film is designed to retroactively service a backstory possibility raised by a few lines of dialogue in the original trilogy: namely, the Rebel Alliance’s theft of the Galactic Empire’s plans for a world-ending space weapon called the Death Star. Normally, I’d need to explain what any of that meant, but you know, and I know, that I don’t because it’s Star Wars.

We’ve lived with these stories for decades now, and if anything the newest entry is further proof that the cinematic universe model of moviemaking innovated by Marvel also works beautifully for galaxies far, far away. Rogue One both honors and expands the now 40-plus year-old Star Wars lore, remaining true to the series’ time-tested elements while charting out a few exciting new directions.

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Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

In some ways the story is freed up by not having to address the Skywalker lineage that threads through the central saga. There’s no expectation of an “I’m your father”-level twist and so characters, and therefore plot lines, just tend to be what they are. When tie-ins to the originals do start popping up, they add juice and depth to an already solid story. I found the appearances of familiar faces like Darth Vader (not a spoiler, he’s in the trailer) to be kinda powerful. As the movie progresses, the proceedings resonate more and more with those familiar Star Wars notes, not unlike an orchestra tuning up until all its members hit the same pitch.

But the detachment from the “main” movies is a double-edged lightsaber. The movie’s opening acts feel like a slideshow of unfamiliar planets and characters, and I got sci-fi name fatigue in about 15 minutes. Although Michael Giacchino’s score serves the movie, one can’t help but feel a little let down as none of the new themes rise to be as memorable of the old ones.

And a couple of the old Star Wars drawbacks are there, too, like blunt dialogue and spotty robot humor. Rogue One‘s droid is the funniest one yet, which is not saying much. Both the beginning and the end of the movie feel cluttered with plot, as a ton of setup pays off in a ton of action. The more lean middle chapters of the movie feels more focused and fresh, and Rogue One is often at its best when it’s at its simplest.

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Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso (left) and Diego Luna as Cassian Andor. Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Rogue One is the least “fun” of the Star Wars films so far. The playful banter between Han and Leia, or Rey and Finn, is all but gone. If you add up all of the sadly hopeful looks and half-grins, the movie has maybe one complete smile in it. Some of the jokes land, but a few feel like they were smuggled in during editing.

But what the movie lacks in bounce it makes up for in intensity. At its heart, Rogue One is movie about guerrilla warfare and espionage, and I liked how much the movie committed to its grimmer tone. The stakes always feel high in this one. We don’t know most of these characters from the other movies, so the feeling that none of them needs to survive to “keep the story going” is pretty palpable. We know the basic outcome, of course, but uncertainty in the details lends a tense edge to Rogue One’s many action set pieces. For a franchise with the word “war” in the title, we haven’t previously seen much of what we’d normally expect to see a “war film” until now. In a very straightforward way, Rogue One is most purely exciting entry in the Star Wars series.

Director Gareth Edwards’ love of the originals is on full display. The production design borrows heavily from the original trilogy, and in some ways Rogue One’s world feels like a massive extension of the Mos Eisley cantina. There seems to have been a very concerted effort to avoid CGI whenever possible. Many of movie’s monsters have that great old-school makeup department quality, and even the spaceships look less like the liquid metal of the prequels and more like the practical models used in the first trilogy. The movie’s cinematography (lensed by Zero Dark Thirty’s Greig Fraser, a great choice given the story) boasts the same muted colors and gritty film grain of the 1977 original, and a handful of shots are direct recreations of shots in Episode IV.

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Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera. Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

We could talk about the cast, but discovering how each actor fits into the story and into Star Wars’ overly intense acting style is part of the fun. Let’s just say they’re all as good as the script allows them to be, which is usually fine and, as is often the case with Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker, sometime better than fine.

The most important thing to know about Rogue One is that it’s an exciting new way to spend two hours in an old movie universe.  While a handful of casual fans may miss the levity of the previous films, and while diehard fans might love it purely because it’s so serious, most of us can look forward to easily enjoying this newly gripping take on Star Wars. Rogue One goes rogue in all the right ways, and for a new Star Wars movie, that’s about all we really need.

Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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