In my youth I read every Star Wars novel I could get my hands on. I was obsessed with the Expanded Universe and the opportunity it represented to give me more of my beloved trilogy of films, at least until such time as George Lucas saw fit to give us those long-promised extra episodes. I loved reading about the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, R2, 3PO, and the rest, their children, and the extended Skywalker family’s attempts to bring peace to that galaxy far, far away. But my favorite books often didn’t involve the saga’s familiar bands of heroes and villains at all, instead focusing on a minor character from the films or telling the story of a previously unexplored event or location in the world of the movies. When Disney bought Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars, they sadly but wisely did away with the Expanded Universe, relegating it to the Star Wars Legends label and removing it from the official canon in order to clear the way for The Force Awakens. It made lots of sense, as it would have been impossible to work the new films around the intricate and even sometimes contradictory narrative that had been created by the countless books, but it was hard to see these stories that I’d (mostly) loved stripped of their official status and turned into a tantalizing “what if” outlining an alternate take on the Star Wars mythology. Despite the Star Wars universe losing a good deal of depth and color without the EU, Disney now finds itself with new avenues of storytelling open to it, and the opportunity to flesh out the saga in a more cohesive way. It’s already started this process with a new series of books that weave in and out of the films and TV series that make up the new official Star Wars canon, but their newest and biggest push to once again plumb those unexplored depths has arrived in the form of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s a bold move, giving audiences a big screen event film with Star Wars in the title, yet featuring almost none of the saga’s main characters, placing it alongside the series’ other 7 live-action films as an equal, yet not advancing the main story of the Skywalker family, requiring a little work and understanding from viewers as to how it relates to its cinematic brethren, all while hoping to launch a new method of Star Wars storytelling as well as a new way to capitalize on the popularity of Star Wars. In the end, Rogue One is a success, telling an exciting and compelling story that enriches the universe without distracting from the ongoing main saga, and I can’t help but feel like it’s the cinematic equivalent of those novels I loved as a kid, which explored moments, issues, and characters that would never be worthy of inclusion alongside the Skywalkers, but which nevertheless contributed to those iconic stories by bringing the surrounding world to life.
Rogue One takes its story directly from the very first moments of the very first Star Wars film back in 1977, the first three sentences of the famous opening crawl: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.” But this story doesn’t start with battles, spies, secret plans, or even the Death Star, it starts with a little girl named Jyn Erso and her father Galen. Galen is a brilliant scientist and engineer who has gone into hiding from the Empire with his wife and daughter. The Empire is very interested in his securing his services, and they eventually come calling, forcing Galen to work on the top-secret Death Star, killing his wife, and forcing Jyn to go on the run. Years later, a defector from the Empire escapes with a message from Galen, and the Rebellion decides to track down Jyn in the hopes that she might be able to lead them to Galen.
Jyn is paired with a Rebel spy named Cassian Andor and his droid K-2SO and the trio sets off to the planet Jedha, the site of an Imperial mining operation and the last known location of the defector and Galen’s message. Standing in the way of their objective is an old friend of Jyn’s, an independent Rebel with extremist tendencies, whose brutal tactics have distanced him from the main body of the Alliance. Jyn and Cassian will have to dodge the Empire and independent Rebel freedom fighters just to get to the extremist Saw Gerrera, and then find a way to deal with the madman in order to get access to the defector and the message. But once they eventually learn of the existence of the Death Star everything changes, forcing Jyn to assemble a motley crew of heroes and mercenaries, navigate the political waters of the Rebellion, and set out on a daring mission to find a way to put a stop to the most devastating weapon the galaxy has ever seen, all with a familiar black figure breathing menacingly down their necks.
Rogue One feels exactly like one of those Expanded Universe books I read as a kid. It’s 100% Star Wars, yet it’s unlike any of the films that have come before it. It’s not a grand, sweeping epic tale of morality, love, sacrifice, family, good, evil, power, politics, and faith, although it contains many of those elements. Instead it’s a focused, contained story that tells of one key event in the greater saga of the Force, the Empire, the Rebellion, and the Jedi. Director Gareth Edwards along with writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have skillfully crafted a film that is exciting and engaging on its own, but which never lets the viewer forget the larger significance of the events we’re watching. It is filled with reminders of the films which we all know so well and connections to people, places, and events from the 7 part series (along with the TV shows that are part of the canon), but it doesn’t live in service to those connections. It takes the familiar trappings of the saga and tweaks them just enough so things feel fresh and without letting us forget that we’re watching a Star Wars movie. That the end result is coherent at all is a testament to the writing, directing, and editing involved in the film, but for it to work so well on its own and as a part of the larger whole seems like capturing lightning in a bottle.
The production is helped along by a solid and wonderfully multicultural cast who unfortunately aren’t used to their full potential. Felicity Jones is suitably strong and independent as Jyn Erso, and Mads Mikkelsen turns in a solid performance as her father, Galen, but no one is given an especially meaty role to sink their teeth into. The characters are all enjoyable and distinct, but you won’t find anyone in Rogue One who is nearly as compelling as Rey or Finn were in The Force Awakens. Diego Luna makes Cassian gruff and somewhat haunted by his choices and Donnie Yen is captivating as a blind warrior who is devoted to the Force despite not being a Jedi, but Jiang Wen and Riz Ahmed fail to make much of an impression as a high powered mercenary and the Imperial defector. On the other hand, Forest Whittaker’s performance as Saw Gerrera is unpredictable and even a little unhinged (in a good way), and he’s captivating in his handful of scenes. But the real star of the show is Alan Tudyk, who played the warrior droid K-2SO through motion capture and who steals every moment he’s onscreen. K-2SO is the opposite of C-3PO, tough, strong, wisecracking, smartass, and even a little threatening, and he caps off an interesting year for Tudyk, who was featured in three of the year’s best films without us ever seeing his face. There are also a few surprise appearances, some cameos and some larger supporting roles, from a variety of familiar faces from the previous films which are variously fantastic, creepy, or unnecessary, but most of which would constitute spoilers in one way or another.
For me, what works the best about Rogue One is its ability to tackle aspects of the galaxy far, far away that would be impossible, distracting, or otherwise unnecessary in one of the main numbered Star Wars films. Once you strip out the Skywalkers, the Force, the Jedi, and the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, you have the freedom to explore the world of these movies more deeply. Rogue One at its heart is a war film, something we’ve seen very little of in the Star Wars saga up until now. Sure, the movies have touched on a variety of wars, and we’ve seen numerous battles, but we never really got a sense of the wars themselves. In Rogue One we get to see into the heart of the early days of the war of the Rebellion against the Empire, including looks into the strategies of both sides, the political implications of their decisions, the debates over methods and ethics of the war, and a glimpse behind the seemingly united fronts we’ve seen from the two sides previously. Rogue One deepens the mythology of the Star Wars universe in a variety of intriguing ways, and if this is the sort of thing we can expect from future “anthology” films with the “A Star Wars Story” branding, then I’m entirely on board.
That being said, I realize that not everyone is as excited by the mythology and politics of Star Wars as I am, given how few people feel the same as I do about the prequels. For everyone else, Rogue One is still an exciting ride filled with interesting tidbits and fun characters. It’s not as deeply emotional as its cinematic brethren, without the iconic characters who immediately grab your attention, nor is it as polished as one might expect. It’s not a story that feels as if it needs to be made, as though it were a story begging to be told. Still, it’s a story worth telling, and one that is told exceptionally well. Ultimately, if it’s not your cup of tea it’s not going to poison you against Star Wars the way many people felt the prequels did. There are no midichlorians, there’s no Jar Jar, and there are no annoying, all-important children. It’s a solid, inoffensive addition to Star Wars, just the sort of thing I want these anthology films to aspire to. Some people like me will love it for the way it enriches the saga we adore, while others will simply find it to be a good time with some great, memorable moments. Either way, it’s a worthy addition to the most famous film series of all time.