If you liked the original Star Wars movies but found the pluck of the rebel alliance fighting against the evil empire a little too cheery, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story may be your favorite film in the expanding story of a galaxy far, far away.
That’s not to say this somewhat inclusive side story is not an extravagant sci-fi spectacle – because it is – but rather a warning to those still basking in the nostalgia of last year’s The Force Awakens that even a war in the stars cannot take place without great loss.
This story centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of a conflicted scientist conscripted into service to help build the oppressive Death Star that factored so prominently in 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. In the opening moments her well-intentioned father (Mads Mikkelson) is captured by an evil emissary (Ben Mendelson) and forced to finish the project while his young daughter witnesses the death of her mother before she goes into hiding. The story picks things up 15 years later when the budding Rebel Alliance finds our female protagonist on the run and asks her to assist them in tracking down plans for the bad guys’ ultimate weapon in hopes of derailing it before it can become active.
Between the impressive special effects and intergalactic intrigue, director Gareth Edwards (best known for the 2014 Godzilla remake) introduces new characters to his expansion of the Star Wars universe and sprinkles them liberally among touchstones to the classic trilogy, all the while keeping a somber tone of underdogs fighting against astronomical odds.
However, even in the story’s lighter moments the ominous overtones which always occur when ideologies violently clash cannot be ignored. SPOILER ALERT: new friends become casualties alongside the nameless cavalry involved in the fight, and even if you know the outcome of the battle in advance the theme of impending loss always hangs over the proceedings.
This story in the Star Wars universe thankfully increases the diversity of its world beyond the predominately white cast of the original trilogy and its prequels, though few are given a backstory. Martial arts master Donnie Yen has some significant screen time as a blind devotee of “The Force.” Both his character and that of voice actor Alan Tudyk as a repurposed empirical droid now serving the rebels are sure to become fan favorites, but Forest Whitaker’s tangential inclusion seemed an unnecessary diversion. Sadly, anyone seeking additional insights into the greater mythos of Sith and Jedi will not find the answers they are looking for here.
There are enough familiar faces (even computer-generated ones) inserted into Rogue One to keep the fans happy, and paying service to multi-generational geekdom is part of this installment’s appeal. But it never goes into much depth despite its two-hour and 14 minute running time. That’s a shame, because when the final credits roll one gets the feeling none of this installment added much to the larger space opera other than to make its inclusion a somber footnote to what had been told before.
Like many fans of the original films I remember the state of child-like wonder with which I saw the first adventures in this universe, and as someone who endured the subsequent prequels I wondered if that could ever be recaptured.
The Force Awakens did that to some degree, even if it leaned a little too hard on replicating the beats from the original. Rogue One wisely tempers the temptation to do that as much as its predecessor, even if a certain villain does provide important ligature to the other installments.
What is missing, however, is a sense of fun and that is perfectly allowable when the primary tale at hand is one involving war. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what a pre-teen version of myself who always wanted to add to his growing Star Wars collection would make of this movie.
Death and destruction (even at the end of brightly colored laser beams) is not something I dwelled on much growing up in the ’80s, but maybe those of us living in the shadow of the 9-11 attacks have been forced to mature to the point that the casualties of war are something we cannot hide among our most beloved action figures.
Perhaps lamenting on loss is something modern society cannot avoid even when it comes to escapist entertainment, so casually examining it within the context of space ships and talking robots lessens the inherent brutality of war is a way we now cope with it.
Maybe I just yearn for the days where Star Wars was more about wisecracking heroes than the bodies left on the battlefield. Rogue One insists the past was never as innocent as we may hope it was, even if it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards
MPAA rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence
Celluloid Scoreboard: B+ for a very different (and somewhat less whimsical) take on the battle between good and evil in the Star Wars pantheon.