Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Country: USA
Running Time: 133 minutes
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story shows that it’s possible to make a Star Wars film without the Jedi or the Skywalker family drama. Even so, Rogue One can’t get away from the original trilogy. I saw the movie with a friend of mine who deliberately avoided Rogue One spoilers, including its synopsis and trailers. Imagine her surprise when, instead of continuing adventures of Ray, Finn, and Poe, she got yet another Star Wars movie about the Death Star. Although I don’t share her disappointment, I can relate.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is, first and foremost, a war movie. Set in the dark days of the Rebellion, it follows a group of fighters led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) as they try to steal the plans for the Death Star and thus set in motion the events of Episode IV: A New Hope.

The first half of the movie is disjointed, to say at least. In a wonderful prologue, we’re introduced to young Jyn (played by Beau Gadsdon) and her father, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen – as good as he is in Doctor Strange). Then Rogue One abruptly cuts to captain Andor, before returning to Jyn’s origin story. At least Andor gets an introduction scene of his own, which is more that can be said for most of the other characters that pile up throughout the next half hour or so. What begins as a story of one woman’s rebellion against the Empire turns into an ensemble movie… except when it wobbles back to Jyn. It doesn’t help either that Felicity Jones isn’t all that charismatic in the lead role.

Aside from a cameo by Darth Vader, there’s nary a lightsaber in sight. Despite that, there are plenty of interesting elements in Rogue One. There’s Galen Erso who spends years feigning loyalty to the Empire for a chance to strike at it from within. There’s Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), an ambitious bureaucrat in charge of the Death Star project and a poster child for the banality of evil. But by far the most interesting character is the rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). A Colonel Kurtz-like figure, Gerrera is so uncompromising in his fight against the Empire that even the other Rebel leaders shun him.

Ever since the first Star Wars came out in 1978, its sequels keep returning back to it. I like to believe that the Star Wars universe is rich enough to tell other stories besides those about the galaxy’s most dysfunctional family. Rogue One is a step in the right direction but remains tied to the events of the first Star Wars movie. This franchise is so popular, you could probably make a movie about the Jedi using the Force to cheat at the poker tournament and people would still want to see it. So why keep going back? Is the Star Wars universe really that small? Or is it that the producers at Disney are playing it safe, afraid of alienating their target audience? You don’t have to answer these questions. They’re rhetorical.

While we’re at it, just who is the target audience for Rogue One? It’s hard to imagine kids or families enjoying this (mostly) humorless war movie with a downbeat ending. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a trend of grim and gritty reboots of the beloved franchises. Sometimes this works and you get Batman Begins. Other times, you get loud, dumb nonsense like Man of Steel. Although Rogue One is far closer to the former than to the latter, I don’t think that darker and edgier approach is a way to go for this franchise. Just because the audience for space operas and superhero spectacles is all grown up, doesn’t mean that their toys have to grow up with them, too. Leave something for your kids, too! And please, please stop confusing style for substance: by itself, being dour and downbeat doesn’t make a film more mature.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a Star Wars movie for grownups. This is exactly as bad – And good! – as it sounds. I liked it for a way it tried to do something different. I also disliked the way it has actually done it.

Maybe the next Star Wars movie will be the one that does something truly new and fun with the franchise. But then again, I’ve expected this for five movies now. And yet I keep returning for more. Such is the magic of Star Wars.