by Benjamín Harguindey
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is exactly what it says on the tin: a brand new story set in the Star Wars universe, numberless because it doesn’t expand on the Skywalker family history of hubris and redemption (if we’re to allot a connecting thread to all numbered movies) and very much its own movie, even if it’s set in such a way that it ends up tailgating the original Star Wars (1977).
Directed by Gareth Edwards and written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, the film tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance came into possession of the Death Star’s plans. In the grand scheme of the saga, this is a rather trivial story, filling in the blanks of a question that never arose that much interest to begin with. But because it’s set up between two preexisting movies (episodes III & IV) Rogue One is forced to tell a self-sufficient plot that feels less like a long-term franchise investment and more like a proper story with a beginning, a middle and an end. And what an end.
Our protagonist is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is definitely not a rendition of Expanded Universe fan-favorite Jan Ors. We’re off to a dubious start because Jyn is yet again an orphaned farmer from a desert planet, and the toughened-by-life British lass act has shades of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015). Not to worry, Jyn proves to be a more compelling, driven and plausible character than unflappable wunderkind Rey. After being sprung from jail by Allied forces she’s tasked with tracking down Death Star architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), reluctant Imperial collaborator and her long-gone father.
Jyn is escorted by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his co-pilot droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Cassian doesn’t have much in the way of character, and it feels like the mystery surrounding him never quite pays off; K-2SO is a fun combo of series lovelies R2-D2 and C-3PO, mixing the former’s sass with the latter’s pessimism. Along the way they pick up a range of interesting but underwritten multicultural personages characterized by profession and appearance only: blind holy man Chirrut (Donnie Yen), no-nonsense gunner Baze (Wen Jiang) and defecting Imperial pilot Bohdi (Riz Ahmed). They feel less like characters than collections of traits, though they make for a more engaging bunch than this year’s remake of The Magnificent Seven.
Rogue One is consistently entertaining, but only gradually enthralling. The movie picks up steam about halfway through, once it stops cutting between four different plot threads ala The Force Awakens and locks on for good on the mission to rescue Galen and retrieve the Death Star plans. Here we start appreciating Rogue One’s central theme, sacrifice and commitment, coming on particularly strong during its third and final act, which is definitely the best part of the movie.
The strength of Rogue One is that it manages to tell its own story while also feeling distinctly like it belongs to the Star Wars universe.
It goes for a few cameos and Easter Eggs, but doesn’t overdo it. There’s only one space battle and nary a lightsaber is lit, bold moves for a Star Wars movie. The Emperor is much talked about but wisely kept off-screen, Grand Moff Tarkin is played by a creepy digital doppelganger of the late Peter Cushing, and Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) shows up in a couple of scenes. One of them is a mixture of OK and silly because it has Lord Vader putting baddie-of-the-day Krennic (Ben Mendehlson, who also played a pompous, pretentious bureaucrat in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises) back in his place via a terrible pun; the other is great because it manages to make Vader terrifying once more and directly ties to the beginning of A New Hope.
Overall this is probably as good as the Star Wars “anthology movies” will get – innocuous additions to the mainline canon, snuggled in between “official movies” with just enough elbow room that they can be their own thing but not enough that they can cheat and branch out into franchises of their own (the MCU route). As it is, Rogue One provides a fresh, entertaining spin to the franchise and rekindles the enthusiasm for its mythology in ways The Force Awakens didn’t quite achieve.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).