A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Not the actual Star Wars story, of course, the one about Jedi Knights and galactic emperors with quasi-mystical powers, the next instalment of which won't be along until this time next year. But a Star Wars story nonetheless, about people who don't have quasi-mystical powers and have never done the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs, although they're reasonably good with a blaster in a tight spot. It's an epic about extras, an opera about spear carriers.
The first act of the movie is a mess, honestly.
The opening crawl of the original Star Wars told us simply that "Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon," and until Rogue One was announced, that was enough. Who those spies were and how they accomplished their mission was unimportant: all that mattered was that the princess and the ‘chosen one’ had what they needed. Rogue One, which was directed by Gareth Edwards and written by Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy – the latter of whom reportedly directed substantial reshoots as well – doesn't add to that tale so much as weave around and through it, fleshing out what transpired on the ground before Luke and his sister were sailing among the stars.
So it is that we find ourselves riding shotgun with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a plucky but otherwise undistinguished half-orphan whose father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is the unwilling architect of the Empire's newest and deadliest weapon, the Death Star. Perhaps you've heard of it? The rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) tracks her down 15 years after Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) kidnapped her father and killed her mother, hoping that she'll be able to provide an entrée to the militant radical Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), the recipient of a covert message from Galen borne by a renegade cargo pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who... okay, this part of the movie's a mess, honestly.
The purpose of Rogue One’s opening movement is to assemble a ragtag band of fighters, one that also includes the blind Force worshipper Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and the grizzled gunner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), who will take up the charge of stealing the Death Star plans when the Rebel Alliance gets cold feet. Yen and Jiang play their characters with a gruff tenderness that suggests their relationship may be more than platonic, and Alan Tudyk lends his voice and his movements to K-2SO, a wisecracking former Imperial droid with an unnerving penchant for calculating the precise likelihood of his comrades' deaths. But neither Edwards nor the writers know how to bring the characters together in any convincing way, so they settle for having them run alongside each other until they eventually fall into sync.
Once they do, however, Rogue One starts humming, and although it sputters and coughs now and again, it never lets up. Unlike The Force Awakens, which struggled to shoulder the weight of myth, Rogue One is a machine of a film that moves toward its inevitable endpoint with unrelenting determination. Although there are a few familiar faces, most drawn from Star Wars' C-list – Mon Mothma! Bail Organa! – its characters are largely new, which means the movie can do with them as it wants. It isn't hemmed in the way most prequels are; for all we know from the original Star Wars, Jyn and crew could have perished in a nuclear blast or retired to a life of ease.
Edwards naturally drops plenty of references to the original trilogy – a certain pair of classically mismatched droids make a cameo appearance – but they feel more like passing bits of fun than grindingly mandatory fan service. The movie even provides an answer to the nagging question of why the Empire would build a planet-destroying superweapon while allowing direct access to its most vulnerable point.
If you’re still fact-checking Star Wars, there’s probably a better use for your time
More important than Rogue One's contribution to Star Wars' plot is the way it inhabits its universe. JJ Abrams had the responsibility of extrapolating from the original trilogy, and George Lucas's prequels wound back the clock, but Edwards' movie is happening virtually on top of the first movie, which leaves him with a unique and daunting task: to make a movie with virtually the same elements as the original Star Wars that still feels like it was made in 2016 and not 1977. The film does this largely by engaging a multiracial cast from different parts of the globe, but also by a embracing the range of perspectives that come with it. When Jyn announces she's planning to end her brief tenure in the rebellion because it makes no difference to her who rules the galaxy, Cassian says she's lucky to have been born with a choice; you don't need to speak Aurabesh to recognise the suggestion that Jyn check her privilege. That this literally motley crew's heroism is never so much spoken in the movies that follow it chronologically only makes their heroism more poignant: they are history's forgotten soldiers, laying their lives on the line while others carry the baton across the finish line. When the X-wing pilots show up with their brushy ‘70s handlebar moustaches, it brings the ends of the franchise's circle together, but it also reminds us how much has changed between then and now.
What hasn't changed, much, is the way this world feels. Although the spaceships are built in a computer rather than by hand, they still look battered by years of service. Ships still pop out of hyperspace with an absurd lack of forward momentum, stormtroopers are still flung into the air by explosions as if they're jumping on cue, and, most importantly, locked doors still open with a single blaster shot to the control panel. Edwards embraces the original aesthetic in all its occasional goofiness, semi-conical helmets and archaic plot devices included. A major objective in the movie's climax involves the battle to reach an abruptly critical "master switch" that, for no apparent reason at all, is located in the middle of a clearing. It's a setup so dumb it's smart, a reminder that if you're fact-checking the Star Wars series at this late date, there's probably a better use for your time.
Sometimes, the attempt to mimic the original goes too far, especially when it comes to using digital technology to resurrect Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin. Cushing and his estate are honored in the credits, but the character can't escape the ‘uncanny valley’, and the result is far more distracting than it would have been to simply cast a new actor in the part. (It's far easier to bring back Darth Vader: James Earl Jones reprises the voice, and new actors fill out the suit.) But by the time the movie works its way around to the climactic battle, set around a data storage facility improbably located in what looks like a tropical paradise, the movie is squarely focused on the new characters we've come to know, and the battle we've come to live. We know they succeed in their objective to get the Death Star's blueprints to the rebel comrades, but we've never known the cost of that success. Once we do, that knowledge holds the tantalising prospect of making even Star Wars feel like something new again.
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