Having been let down by George Lucas's experiment gone awry a.k.a. Episodes I, II, and III, I was hoping that The Force Awakens would be a return to what made the original trilogy special. TFA had the opportunity to inject some life into the Star Wars canon, but director J.J. Abrams chose to rely heavily on nostalgia and essentially did a reboot of A New Hope.
Fortunately, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a welcomed addition to the Star Wars universe that is fresh, but still familiar enough to be called a Star Wars movie. From the opening of Rogue One, which doesn't include John Williams's famous theme nor the opening crawl, you know this is going to be a different type of movie.
The Rebellious Plot
The plot is simple and straightforward, yet engaging. Taking place right before Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One centers around the Rebel Alliance's mission to steal the plans for the Death Star--the Empire's new weapon that has the power to destroy entire planets
The Rebels are led by former criminal and soldier Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Rebel Alliance Intelligence officer Cassian Ando (Diego Luna). The ragtag team also includes an ex-Imperial pilot, a blind warrior, a mercenary, and a Rebel-owned Imperial droid named K-2.
Ostensibly, the plan is simply to steal the plans, but Andor has been given specific instructions by Rebel elites to assassinate the reluctant architect behind the Death Star, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who also happens to be Jyn's father.
A Darker Tone
The film that follows is the most entertaining and well made Star Wars movie since 1983's Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Not only does Rogue One tout some of the best performances of any Star Wars film, it includes a final battle scene that rivals that of the original trilogy.
Taking place on the tropical planet Scarif, the end battle is more reminiscent of a World War II movie rather than a sci-fi adventure. Despite containing a lot of CGI (some of the best ever captured on screen), the war scene is filled with raw emotion and is beautifully shot.
In addition to the skillfully filmed finale, the unique tone (compared to other Star Wars movies) really sets Rogue One apart. The tone is dark and unflinching at times, which is exactly as it should be. In particular, the battle on Eadu stands out in this regard. The scene takes place at night in the pouring rain and features one of the most tragic scenes in the movie.
Speaking of dark, there is also a brief scene featuring Darth Vader (once again voiced by James Earl Jones) showcasing his lightsaber skills to great effect. Without giving too much away, it is perhaps the most ruthless Vader has ever been portrayed on screen.
Felicity Jones expertly plays Jyn and is a much more engaging of a heroine than Rey (Daisy Ridley) in TFA. Jones, who earned an Oscar nomination for the Theory of Everything, is as believable in the film's action sequences as she is in its more quiet emotional scenes. Co-star Diego Luna is also solid as Andor, the complicated hero who illustrates that sometimes good guys have to do bad things.
The supporting cast of Forrest Whitaker, Donny Yen, and Riz Ahmed are all good as well. Mads Mikkelsen, who always delivers a standout performance is fantastic in his small role. Rounding out the stellar cast is Ben Mendelsohn, who plays one of the best villainous characters in recent Star Wars memory.
Interestingly, the long-deceased Peter Cushing reprises his role as Moff Tarkin thanks to CGI. There is also another CGI face to look out for as well as some other quick cameos of some familiar faces.
In a league of its own
Director Gareth Edwards has created a masterwork that stands alone in the Star Wars canon. A gutsy movie that features a (spoiler alert) Shakespearian ending, Rogue One is part science fiction drama and part gritty war film. It is a layered movie that challenges the traditional notions of good and evil in a way that the prequels did not and in a more subtle way than TFA.
This isn't simply a good v. evil story featuring cardboard cutout heroes and villains, it's a complex movie shaded with many grays. Edwards has made an engaging Star Wars movie, with new characters that you actually care about, without having to rely on four-decade-old nostalgia. That is no easy feat.
Rating: 4.75 out of 5
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