(Please note: this is as spoiler-free as I can make it, going so far as to not even mention new characters’ names, with action examples being nonspecific and kinda vague. I want you to enjoy this movie as much as I did and remain unspoiled.)
As it says in my review of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, I’m a Star Wars fan from the way back. My earliest memory is of seeing Star Wars – as it was simply named in my childhood – in a movie theater. My parents bought my sisters and me countless toys, books, clothing items, and other various items the Star Wars marketing machine saw fit to release (thank you, Mom and Dad!). Honestly, my love for the Star Wars films has never diminished, even with the Prequel Trilogy films being what they were (I’ve finally realized my biggest problem with the Prequel Trilogy – hit me up on Twitter at @eddiepasa if you want to know). A friend of mine said her flame for the Star Wars series had gone out with the Prequel Trilogy, and I don’t think I can blame her.
One thing always nagged at me, though: how did Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) get involved and come into receivership of the Death Star’s “stolen data tapes” for which she was taken prisoner in Star Wars? Seeing as how I went into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (hereafter referred to as Rogue One, its official name as per the title screen) after only having seen the first teaser trailer, avoiding any other trailers or footage included with cable screenings of the various Star Wars films, I’ve already told you – in that one question which I’ve had for over thirty-some years – more than I knew.
I will try to keep this review to a technical and thematic critique. Not because the good folks running publicity for the film told me to, mind you; it’s because I loved being surprised by what this film holds for Star Wars fans who stayed unspoiled like me. The film’s delights and treasures are many; you don’t have to be any kind of Star Wars fan – hardcore or fair-weather – to enjoy them, either. At the core of the film are themes of family, redemption, and sacrifice – universal touchstones for any heroic film. Director Gareth Edwards, working from a script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, has made a war film in the vein of Saving Private Ryan, where a disparate bunch of fighters carry out a small mission to stave off a force bent on genocide.
Edwards has nailed the feel of the 1977 film which started it all, a rough-hewn look of people living on “the ragged edge,” as another space captain once called it (if you haven’t watched either “Firefly” or its follow-up film Serenity… GET ON IT), and tones of despair and fear. He’s not hesitant to show you how much of a bitch war is, either; men, women, children, extraterrestrial lifeforms, and robots die by the scores, either during battle or as a result of Imperial cleansing operations. This is not George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy vision of gibberish-speaking Gungans or anything else meant to get parents driving to toy stores; this is Operation Valkyrie by way of the Rebellion and the Empire.
However, hope lies in the chaos, as we’re constantly shown how difficult it is to do the right thing in the face of insurmountable odds and impending death, with horrible decisions being made by both the Empire and the Rebellion. A man is forced to either give up his family to work for the Empire or be killed on the spot; a sniper wrestles with his conscience over the assigned target in his gun sights; leaders must choose to either fight the Empire’s staggering numbers or flee while they can; and at the center of it all, a young girl has to choose between her family and her destiny. It’s in these choices and results where we see a person’s true self, with some of those choices being heartbreakingly self-sacrificial.
Weitz and Gilroy’s script hops us from planet to planet at lightspeed, with Edwards’ vision and visuals matching it with a juggernaut pace. 133 minutes fly by without feeling rushed or underdeveloped; each character has a story, told efficiently through a dazzling mix of exposition dialogue, intimation, and nuance. It’s a balance one must strike gingerly, as it’s imperative to keep emotion from weighing heavy during war; the actors valiantly display this struggle on their faces and through their well-tuned body language. Diego Luna’s clipped, get-to-the-point patter and mannerisms clash wildly with Felicity Jones’ caught-in-a-whirlwind freneticism, providing a neat game of push-and-pull; I’m loath to call it “romantic,” but it’s definitely not a brothers-in-arms kind of thing.
Since hearing about Rogue One being a Star Wars spinoff, I was afraid of the oversaturation of Star Wars films due to Disney’s 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm. Most of us know the hold Disney has on our landscape, pretty much taking over as the de facto children’s entertainment division. We’ve seen what Disney has done with Marvel films and their respective products, and it’s bordering on tiresome at this point. However, if the quality of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Rogue One are any indicator. then the franchise is in good hands and I’m willing to give it some leeway. I said on Twitter I’d only be happy with this film if it ended exactly the way I wanted; exhilaratingly for me, it came within a hairsbreadth away from it, and I’m still ecstatic about the movie. Rogue One was everything I’d wished for and more – a thrilling heist film combined with the brutality of a galaxy erupting into a battle for their very lives.
And to my friend from the first paragraph who said her flame for Star Wars had been extinguished, I say to you simply this: I have seen your flame, and it lies within Rogue One.