The opening scene of Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One” is exhilarating.
It begins with a gorgeous panoramic vista of a remote and distant planet, a magical place where the ocean nudges up against a fog-swaddled valley. An angular, bird-like aircraft pierces the gray horizon and lands on the leafy ground below. For those who live in this place, the ship’s arrival doesn’t appear to be entirely unexpected — a scraggly fugitive named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is seen whispering four ominous words to his wife: “He’s come for us.”
A phalanx of soldiers step on to the grass, their leader, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) urging them forward. Snarls of wind kick up the white hem of his Imperial cloak in a wide shot that combines the tactile beauty of George Lucas’ original trilogy with the mythic Western portent that defined the first third of “The Force Awakens” (or “Once Upon a Time in the West,” for that matter). The dialogue is terse and electric; the characters brim with pathos that seems worthy of the majestic world they inhabit. This is “Star Wars” not as we know it, but as we remember it — this is “Star Wars” as we’ve always wished it to be. The possibilities are endless. The potential is as infinite as the stars in the galaxy. Finally, a “Star Wars” movie that doesn’t have to be responsible to the rest of them.
Correction: Finally, a “Star Wars” movie that shouldn’t have been responsible to the rest of them.
There is, you will soon come to learn, no compelling narrative reason for “Rogue One” to exist. A spirited but agonizingly safe attempt to expand cinema’s most holy blockbuster franchise and keep the wheels greased between proper installments, this scrappy first “Star Wars Anthology” is ultimately just a glorified excuse to retcon some sense into one of the silliest things about the original. Remember how bizarre it was that Darth Vader’s planet-killing Death Star had a weak spot that made the entire doomsday device vulnerable to a single well-placed shot? Well, here’s an 135-minute movie that has no purpose other than to explain the reason for that architectural oversight.
Set in the formative stretch of time between the events of 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” and 1977’s “A New Hope,” “Rogue One” has been reverse-engineered to serve as connective tissue between two separate trilogies of the ever-expanding “Star Wars” universe. It tells the story of a ragtag group of resistance fighters (what!) who band together to steal the blueprints of the Death Star and ultimately relay the specifics of its vulnerability to Princess Leia. At the center of this motley crew is Galen’s daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), indistinguishable from the bland and plucky heroine of Episode VII save for her privileged disillusionment — Jyn, who fears that her father sold his soul to the Empire, doesn’t believe that the future is worth fighting for (because she’s never had to fight for it).
“You don’t have a problem seeing the Imperial flag waving?” someone asks her. “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up,” comes her clever reply.
Jyn’s transition from apathetic spectator to hardened rebel is the heart and soul of the movie, the meat of its turgid second act, but Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s script is too busy connecting the dots of the film’s greater purpose to give their protagonist the trajectory she deserves. Instead, they surround her with a colorful cast of characters, all of whom demand more love and attention than the movie is willing to give them.
Diego Luna is a bit lost between archetypes, but he’s charming enough as the Rebel Alliance Intelligence officer tasked with using Jyn as bait. Riz Ahmed makes the most of his screen time as an Imperial defector, convincingly over his head but true to his heart. Jiang Wen and the legendary Donnie Yen are exquisite additions to the crew, respectively playing a freelance assassin and a blind Jedi zealot who wields a staff like a live-action Yoda — it’s unforgivable how little attention they’re paid during the final firefight, how they’re all affect and no soul. Best of the new additions is K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), an Imperial droid who’s been stolen and reprogrammed by the Rebels. Once a ruthless enforcer, now a droll bot with killer comic timing, he’s as delightful and alive as any animated character you could find in a Disney film.
Lucasfilm, Jonathan Olley
How these space cowboys come together is neither interesting nor important, but following along as they collide with each other makes for a fun travelogue of intergalactic hotspots (some of which blow up in uniquely satisfying ways). No “Star Wars” director has shot this world as lovingly as Edwards does — he never manages to conjure a setpiece as massive and majestic as the ones that highlight his 2014 “Godzilla,” but he takes every opportunity to awe at the scenery. “Rogue One” is at its best when it pauses to render the distant Death Star as an ashy white moon in the sky, when it turns a desert wasteland into the ruins of a fallen civilization, when — in one fantastic early sequence — it re-stages “The Battle of Algiers” in a sand-swept marketplace that’s teeming with alien life and making uncertain use of violent imagery from the contemporary Middle East. It’s the only time when “Rogue One” makes good on its promise to be a war movie, and not just a “Star Wars” movie with a slightly higher body count (though a climactic space battle is graced with enough raw carnage to become the series’ best).
Like so much of this film, that electrifyingly staged passage is suspended between the past of one galaxy and the present day of another. “Rogue One” — released 11 years after its prequel and 39 years after its sequel — isn’t just a bridge between generations, it’s a waypoint between analog and digital ways of storytelling. And on that level, it’s absolutely fascinating. Edwards clearly reveres the practical genius of George Lucas’ designs, and his film does a great job of mixing modern touches (e.g. a climactic moment that hinges on boosting a satellite signal) with more material inflections (e.g. a parallel climactic moment that hinges on someone pushing a delightfully rustic metal switch). The whole movie is compellingly balanced between old and new, determined to pave over the potholes that have been caused by corporate and creative upheaval over the years and force a feeling of cohesion upon Hollywood’s signature spectacle. This is about bringing peace to the galaxy in more ways than one.
If only that renovation didn’t lead to more bumps in the road than it smooths out, if only “Rogue One” didn’t share its characters’ tragic need to be defined by its mission. The film is completely constricted by its purpose, choked by Darth Vader and the shadow of his looming war. It’s frustrating enough that contemporary blockbusters have become so episodic, each franchise installment an advertisement for the next, but it’s even more suffocating to watch a film that has to fit the contours of a sequel that the world has already committed to memory.
Lucasfilm / Jonathan Olley
Almost everything that works about “Rogue One” does so on its own strength, and almost everything that doesn’t work about “Rogue One” does so out of out of deference to other movies that were already holding up fine on their own. It can be cute to watch this cast reach into history and tie knots out of the franchise’s loose ends, but Edwards’ film doesn’t just leverage the franchise’s first two trilogies, it relies on them (a feeling that’s made all the more frustrating by the director’s obvious ability to endow sui generis moments with the saga’s signature thrill).
[slight act one spoilers]
“Rogue One” is riddled with examples of such parasitic storytelling, but one particularly unforgivable decision towers above the rest, as damning a pox upon the “Star Wars” franchise as Jar Jar Binks or the digital Jabba that was inserted into the special edition of “A New Hope.” Brace for what might just be the worst (and most overplayed) CG character in the history of modern Hollywood: Young Grand Moff Tarkin.
That’s right, they brought Peter Cushing back from the dead, and the results are unnatural, unethical, and borderline unholy. Worst of all, they’re hideous. Cushing’s lifeless digital husk is a blight upon the most beautiful “Star Wars” film to date, its presence squeezing the air out of several different scenes. Zombie Tarkin is macabre, distracting, and the start of a long slide down a slippery slope, but — worse than that — his presence isn’t just a blemish on the face of “Rogue One,” it’s a symptom of its fatal decision to glorify the past at the expense of charting a new course for the present. But here we are, the filmmakers casting themselves as Lazarus lost in the uncanny valley, so turned around that no one realized how much better the movie would be if it ditched Tarkin entirely (his sole purpose is to defang Orson Krennic, a villain who’s reduced to nothing but another phantom menace).
Of course, in a film where everything is frustrating and nothing is easy, it should come as no surprise that the film’s bravura final moments fly in the face of such thinking and realize the full potential of ret-con storytelling. Equal parts satisfying and maddening, the last few moments of “Rogue One” are almost good enough to fool you into thinking that the whole enterprise was a good idea.
But for all of its fan service, the denouement only works because of how well it illustrates to the film’s most crucial theme: Rebellions are built on hope, and hope is built together.
“Rogue One,” more fluently than any other “Star Wars” story, speaks to the idea that resistance is a team effort, and that every act of heroism is made possible by the sacrifices of a thousand others — that every hero is made possible by a thousand people whose names have been long forgotten. This is a film about how even the smallest acts of courage can change the world, a film about doing the right thing even when it’s easier to just stare at your feet and stay in formation. Not only is “Rogue One” the rare modern blockbuster that could have afforded to risk something real, it’s the rare modern blockbuster that gave itself a genuine responsibility to do so. And yet, for all of its excitement and occasional splendor, there’s nothing the least bit rebellious about it. It could have been special, instead it’s just… forced.
“Rogue One” opens in theaters on Friday, December 16.