It’s been a year since Star Wars has made its comeback to the big screen. Now, a year after The Force Awakens, which some have liked and some didn’t as much, we get to see the first stand-alone film, titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It promised to give us the tale of the Rebel Alliance’s first victory, and its capture of the Death Star plans, as seen through the eyes of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and the group of Rebels who join her in the mission. How well did the film manage? Here are my first impressions. (Once again, this review is spoiler-free, and I directly mention only a couple of things which you could see in the trailers already – like the main characters, for example.)
Revisiting the Rebellion Era
I am going to start with what I liked about the film the most. It was the overall atmosphere and the feel of genuinely visiting the same Galaxy we all know, but seeing it through different lens. Not the lens of the Episode VII, even though we are watching a new story in which the Galaxy is again in complete disarray. Not the lens of the prequel trilogy, even though we can see how the tragedy of Episodes II and III have carried us to this moment. And not even the lens of the original trilogy, because there is no hope for the Rebellion – yet.
Now I maybe made Rogue One sound grim and awful. It is not. And that is not just because there is the ultimate idea of striving towards a new hope (and towards A New Hope). Rogue One is not tragic or grim in the way for example Revenge of the Sith is. It is about a desperate struggle, sure, but it is the moment of judgment just before the dawn. And it is not grim and awful, it is merely realistic. And by realistic, I mean positively so. Rogue One shows the daily reality under the Empire’s rule, but despite the tyranny, it isn’t all like George Orwell’s 1984. People are being made into cogwheels in the Imperial machine, but they are still humans (and aliens!) and have their lives. The reality is not black and white, Empire and Rebels. The Jedi have disappeared, but the faith in the Force lives on in its own ways. This is the Galaxy we haven’t seen yet, this is the Galaxy where Rebellion has been so far without major victories. Even in A New Hope, the seeds of rebellion are beginning to sprout. What we see here is exactly that moment before it.
What I said about the overall atmosphere also applies to the depth of the setting we are in. One thing that felt wrong to me about Episode VII was that it made the Galaxy feel small. Even though it had new planets, they looked just like the old planets and it made it seem that you have only a certain “typecast” of planets. Rogue One made the Galaxy feel large again. The story moves through several planets (and moons), they have their own specific landmarks and their own characteristic traits. For example the planet Jedha, which the heroes visit early on in the film, is a desert planet, but it is nothing like Tatooine or Jakku. Or, okay, it is a bit, because it has the vibe of a messy place full of violent alien characters. But it is not the primary feeling you get from it. Jedha is a pilgrimage site with a former Jedi temple, it has the vibe of a galactic Jerusalem or Mecca. Indeed, the Tatooine-ish vibe might come at most from the fact that there are crowds of aliens (and again: they are literal crowds, not small scattered groups of locals like on Tatooine).
The War Has Marked Them All
The characters are another thing I was quite happy about. Jyn Erso is a good main character, but if I were to point out one thing that was splendidly done, it is the moment when she decides to join the Rebellion. It of course all comes down to her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who is the Robert Oppenheimer-type scientist who is forced to help the Empire to build its superweapon. If I have one thing to complain about in this regard, it is the fact that the trope of “important relationship between father and daughter” appears in basically every story (even though it isn’t so much the case of Star Wars films, but that might have to do with the general absence of daughters) and it gets a bit old. Nothing wrong with that idea, I am glad if fathers can be inspiring elements in their daughters’ lives, but like I said, the trope is overused – but why couldn’t it have been Jyn’s mother-scientist for a change (and speaking of her, she was reduced pretty much to zero appearance).
The supporting crew surprised me pleasantly by being better than I expected. The murderistic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is perfect, funny, and even though he obviously is meant to be funny, it is not overdone at all. The expanded universe fans’ favourite killer droid HK-47 might have finally found its match. Likewise, the Imperial defector pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is very endearing, as is Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), the heavy gunner-friend of the blind warrior monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen). Some time ago, the actors have compared the duo of Chirrut and Baze to Don Quijote and Sancho Panza and now I can see what they meant. Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) also turned out to be much, much more interesting character than I expected. Based on the trailers I was afraid he would be the basic nice good guy, but since his first appearance the film makes it clear that his personality and values are fairly conflicted. Of the secondary characters, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) definitely made an impression. The fans of the animated Clone Wars series would remember Saw Gerrera as a minor character, a young freedom fighter from Onderon. Now, he is old, war-scarred both on the inside and the outside, and his persona just radiates the tragedy of war. You can feel the depth of the character even if you haven’t watched the Clone Wars. If I am mentioning great acting, who made the biggest impression on me was Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma. And, of course, there was also Darth Vader (with the original voice of James Earl Jones), but that goes without saying. (Don’t worry. He is great.)
New Moons and New Suns
What I liked a lot were the visuals. Firstly, everything was graphically very well done, there were no disturbing elements (I watched a 2D performance, so I cannot judge the 3D aspect. I was very happy just with this, however). Lots of the camera shots were beautiful, the elements of light and also sun were very prominent and some images “burned themselves” into my memory (strangely, several of them feature Darth Vader, even though he is not in the film that much). Second, like I have said already, everything contributed to the feeling of the “big Galaxy” – we saw a couple of planets and each of them looked different, and yet it did not stop being Star Wars. Thirdly and maybe most importantly, the equipment, starships and everything else looked beautifully old and battered. Nothing like the sleek, shiny design of the prequel trilogy ships and equipment, but pretty much the classic old trilogy look. And even the Death Star plans themselves were stored on a crudely looking hard drive. Perfect.
Now comes the moment when you probably realise I haven’t mentioned much about the plot yet. Of course, if I am trying to avoid spoilers, I can’t tell much. But there is also a reason, maybe the plot was not the thing that made the greatest impression on me. It was good. But Rogue One was more about the individual characters’ choices than about the plot itself. One thing I was happy about was that originally, long time before the first trailers came out, it seemed like Rogue One might be a “war movie”. It is not, and I welcomed the fact that even though it had cool battles and lots and lots of action and the heroes found themselves in a realistic warzone without any pretense, the film did not dwell unnecessarily on anything like exploding bodies or mass slaughter, and it certainly was not glorifying violence. Bonus points for handling that commendably. I mean, for a movie whose central plot is a military operation, you hardly could have done better, and you could have done much, much worse.
So what is there to criticise? On first impression, very little, so I am going to mention only the few things that really struck me as wrong. With all the praise I had for visuals, there are two unfortunate cases of bad CGI characters the film, I believe, could have done without. They are not, strictly speaking, bad CGI: they are exactly very good CGI, but they are still visibly CGI. Otherwise, I have already mentioned my pet peeve regarding recycling the father-daughter trope and the absence of any role whatsoever for Jyn’s mother, so let me expand a bit in a similar direction. I believe there easily could have been a few more female characters, even as extras (or: especially as extras). I was happy when eventually, a couple of female pilots made appearance in the final space battle (yes, there is a final space battle. What did you think you were watching?). But what really was notable that even though there were women like Mon Mothma and some other Rebel leaders, when you looked at the crowd of Rebels standing in the background, all of them were male. Which doesn’t even make sense.
References to A New Hope, Clone Wars and Rebels
I cannot leave without mentioning that Rogue One had lots and lots of minor cameos and details which connected it to A New Hope. I know many people have thought the references in Episode VII overdone, well, this is certainly not the case of Rogue One. Even though there may be possibly more of them than in The Force Awakens, they fit seamlessly into the surroundings, and some are just beautiful. Hint for noticing my favourite ones: watch out for random passers-by in the crowds of Jedha city, and for the squadron leaders. The only thing I could have done without was yet another case of stormtrooper small talk, but I just hope it isn’t going to become a running joke in every single film.
This is also the first film which consciously borrows elements from the Expanded Universe (the new one, of course), and that is actually really, really good. Fans of Clone Wars, you know about Saw Gerrera. Fans of Rebels, watch out for at least two small easter eggs (one of them is there for a while).
And The Verdict Is…
Based on the first impression, I would give the film 8 or, if I were to give in to my hype, 9 out of 10 stars. Objectively, I think the concept of stand-alone films like this might be better than the concept of further “Episodes”. The advantage is that these films can differ in their tone. Rogue One was a bit more grim, less fairytale-like, but some next stand-alone film could easily be more lighthearted or even completely fairytale-like. At the same time, they can all be Star Wars.