“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” has opened, the box office is strong, and people on the whole seem very happy with it. Particularly at Playlist HQ, where the only division is whether we like the film a lot, or whether we love it — at least one staff member calls it their favorite movie in the franchise, and everyone is generally on the positive side, to a greater or lesser extent.
But whether we love it unreservedly, or we like it with major reservations, we have a lot to say about it. And whether because of space or worrying about spoilers, we didn’t include all of it in our official review, but wanted to dig in deeper once people had seen it. So below, you’ll find our take on the Best and Worst of the film, but be aware that those are to some extent relative terms — the flaws don’t necessarily hurt the whole, and in some cases might even add to it in a strange way, at least as far as the strongly-pro-camp are concerned.
Take a look below, and let us know what you make of the movie in the comments. And beware of SPOILERS, of course.
The Grey Areas
“Star Wars” has always been a story of good versus evil — almost literally, with the Light and Dark sides of the Force. “Rogue One” absolutely has that, but it also introduces some intriguing shades of grey into the mix. Not long after we meet ostensible hero Cassian (Diego Luna), he’s shooting a comrade in the back to prevent his capture and ensure his own escape. Later, he’ll be ordered to kill Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) rather than rescue him. The creator of the Death Star turns out to be the architect of its downfall, and an Empire pilot defects in an attempt to clear his conscience. We get a glimpse of the internal infighting and politics of the Empire (more effectively than the sniping between Adam Driver and Domhnall Gleeson in “The Force Awakens.” And we’ll learn that the Rebels are less united than we’ve always imagined, with Saw Gerrera’s extremist group being essentially disavowed by the mainstream Rebellion, and their tactics visibly echoing those used by insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s lovely texture that helps to make the world richer, but also given the increasingly divided and tribal world we live in, it’s good to show that, even in a fantasy world, that good guys can do terrible things and that terrible people can sometimes do good too.
After threats of a boycott from alt-right fuckwits, Disney head Bob Iger claimed during the “Rogue One” premiere that the film “wasn’t political.” Which is clearly bull, because 1) All art is political and 2) “Rogue One” has politics baked into its core, and it might be the exact movie that we need right now. Clearly (and despite some of these morons thinking that the reshoots had been done to literally add a direct reference to Trump in the movie) the film isn’t in direct response to any recent events, but it strikes a chord right now. The Rebellion has been part of “Star Wars” since the beginning, but it’s often felt like it was just a name for the ‘good team,’ rather than something intrinsically rebellious. But “Rogue One” takes words that we’ve taken for granted in the franchise, like rebellion, resistance and hope, and turns them into crucial themes, and Jyn’s journey from a pathetic loner (who deliberately avoids looking at the Imperial flag) to self-sacrificing rebel is a powerful one in these times. But crucially, it’s far from just her story. At a time where superhero movies and, as Joss Whedon put it, their slightly fascistic overtones, dominate, it’s refreshing to see a blockbuster as egalitarian as this. The victory at the end comes from a (multi-ethnic) collective of pretty ordinary people, not from one single farm boy who happens to have special powers and is the son of Evil Space Jesus, with the group effort winning the day, and every action, from Jyn sending the signal to K-2SO keeping the doors closed to the relay race of faceless Rebel soldiers keeping the Death Star plans just out of Vader’s hands before they’re cut down in turn, is crucial. It’s a laudable focus for a movie like this, the idea that every individual action can make a difference, that we may have to make sacrifices, that we can overcome the darkness by working together, and one that we suspect will make the film a rallying cry in the next four years and beyond.
The Real-Life Echoes
The original trilogy saw more echoes of other movies — serials, Westerns — than it did of the real world, on the whole (you could argue that the Ewoks were the exception, though…). George Lucas’ prequels were more engaged with real-world politics with mirrors between the Emperor’s power grab and the road to the Iraq War, but in such a drab, flat way that it never felt particularly interesting. So it’s almost shocking to feel real-life war zones intruding into a galaxy far far away here, but it’s all for the best. Watching Saw Gerrera’s group plan their attack in the Holy City (indeed, even the mention of a Holy City) feels positively ripped from the headlines of the last 15 years, the tactics blurring the line between freedom fighters and terrorists. And later, it’s hard to see the Rebels move through the jungle of Scarif without thinking of the Vietcong. It’s never distracting, but again, it helps give the film a resonance that the franchise hasn’t always had.
The Intensely Satisfying Third Act
We’ve already called out the third act of ‘Rogue One’ for its action bona fides on our Best Action Sequences of 2016, and of course the layering and cross-cutting between several fluidly imagined mini-quests is what gives the finale its momentum. But skillful action cutting is nothing without narrative stakes, and that’s somehow what sets ‘Rogue One”s climax apart from the run-of-the-mill blockbuster, despite the fact it ought to be working at a disadvantage, seeing as we technically know what is going to happen: the Death Star plans are going to make it off the planet and into the hands of the Alliance. It’s a testament to how cleverly the emotional investment shifts from the success or failure of the overarching quest to the smaller, moment-by-moment goals of each strand of the action, and it builds to a choral finale in which no one act of extraordinary heroism and self-sacrifice means more than any other. The scrappiness, and potential redundancy of a few of these internal beats also adds to a sense of frenzy, and the idea that these are ordinary people rising to extraordinary circumstances, rather than natural born heroes looking for an arena in which to grandstand. And all that is reinforced, of course, by no one actually managing the hero double of completing the mission and remaining alive, which brings us to…
Like, seriously, everyone! And not all in one big explosion, but gradually, one by one, in separate little scenes of differentiated action and motivation, that feel completely believable while at the same time you can’t quite believe the filmmakers went there. Possibly traumatizing for younger viewers (a certain nephew of The Playlist’s acquaintance was close to inconsolable), for the rest of us, while it’s obviously tangled up with shock and sadness (“I am one with The Force, The Force is one with me”) there is something intensely refreshing about this sheer ballsiness of this move. In a movie landscape where so often the blockbuster you’re watching feels more about setting up the one you’re going to watch in two years’ time, the air of finality for these characters is borderline revolutionary. From the moment K-2SO takes one the chest and the lights in his little beady eyes go out, suddenly all bets are off and you get the sense that our principals really could die here. But that’s one thing (and frankly killing Alan Tudyk as a conduit to upping the emotional stakes is a place we’ve been before with “Serenity” #nerdreference). But actually having them all die is quite another, even when, if you think about it, it’s really the only thing that makes any sense of the fact that none of them appear in “A New Hope.”
Romance, And The Lack Thereof
A franchise that somehow created a hall-of-fame romantic couple out of the exchange “I love you”/”I know” has some big shoes to fill in terms of love subplots. And so it’s good that mostly ‘Rogue One’ doesn’t bother — sure, there’s an understated current between Jyn and Cassian, a few burning looks and so on, but they don’t kiss, they never make declarations and the closest they get to consummation is holding hands on the beach where they’re both about to die. What’s so refreshing about that is that none of their sacrifice is ultimately motivated by personal feeling — it is not romantic love that carries the day, it’s duty to their cause and an admiration of that quality in each other. Indeed, the moment of affection at the end feels somehow more resonant because it is largely the sense of communion and shared humanity that any two comrades-in-arms might feel, having prevailed against such high odds, only to face certain death together.
The history of the “Star Wars” comedy sidekick is a patchy one. On one hand, Chewbacca and R2-D2, plus the recent joy of BB-8. On the other: Jar-Jar Binks. So the risk of new droid K-2SO, a dry, mildly sociopathic reprogrammed Imperial Droid, was a considerable one. But the hulking, grey bot, played by Alan Tudyck, is an absolute joy. Quite possibly inspired by HK-47 from the “Knights Of The Old Republic” games, he’s immensely mistrustful of Jyn from the off, almost Eeyore-ish in his constant complaining and fatalism and a lethal killing machine when he finally is allowed to use a blaster. To begin with, his wisecracks threaten to become repetitive, but he’s used smartly and sparingly across the rest of the narrative, lightening the tone where appropriate without harming the stakes. And though he’s in some ways an unlovable character, you grow to adore him by the end (particularly his gradual thawing towards Jyn), and his death, the first of the core cast members, cuts deep — it’s like if Chewbacca had been killed off at the end of “A New Hope” or something.
Darth Vader’s Appearance
It’s sometimes been hard to reconcile the idea of Darth Vader as the galaxy’s most feared warrior, versus the slightly lumbering figure from the original movies. But no longer, because of the character’s utterly terrifying second appearance here, rampaging through a Rebel ship in pursuit of the Death Star plans. Shot somewhat like a horror film, with Vader cutting through swathes of soldiers like they were butter, stopping only to force-choke a guy (something that some of our team found to be a bit fan service-y, but others found to be AWESOME), it’s almost the first time we’ve seen the Vader of legend outside of the occasional one-on-one strangling of an underling. And unlike, say, “Yoda” suddenly turning into a pinball in the end of “Attack Of The Clones,” it still feels of a piece with the character that we know already.
The Supporting Cast
A team-on-a-mission movie is nothing without a compelling team to follow, and “Rogue One” delivers on that front. Aside from Jyn, Cassian and the aforementioned K-2SO, man-of-the-moment Riz Ahmed delivers typically soulful work as pilot Bodhi. He doesn’t always have the most to do — his story seems to have suffered the most in the editing room — but Ahmed aces what is there, and his final sacrifice in particular is moving. Best of the core Rogue One team might be Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, a blind force fanboy with mean stick skills and his bodyguard (and, if we’re reading the subtext right, possibly more) who long ago stopped believing in the Force. On the one hand, it’s a transparent attempt to boost Chinese grosses, but on another, the characters are so likeable, their roles in the universe so different to most others, and the pair’s performances so strong that they end up making a huge impression, and we’re sure prequel comics and novels are already in the offing. Mads Mikkelsen, cast smartly against type as a good guy, does sterling work and lends the film much of its emotional power, and Ben Mendelsohn is as good as you would hope as the villain Orson Krennic. We were surprised to see Mendelsohn using his native Australian accent, but it lends so much to the character — for all his ambition, he’s an outsider among the Empire, and seemingly looked down on by Tarkin and the other more aristocratic Empire types, and there’s a humanity in his desperation to be taken seriously, despite his obvious evil.
The Easter Eggs
It’s ironic — though perhaps understandable, with last year’s entry needing to draw people back to the franchise — that “The Force Awakens,” the movie that moved the saga forward, had its biggest problem in the way that it felt beholden to the originals, while “Rogue One” hews closer in time, but feels like it’s doing its own thing. There are plenty of nods, easter eggs, jokes and references, specifically to “A New Hope,” but on the whole they work well rather than distracting. The CGI on Leia at the end is just good enough that it feels like necessary connective tissue, while touches like putting pilots from the Death Star battle (using unused footage from the original 1977 movie) into the fight above Scarif, or seeing the guy who loses his arm to Obi-Wan in the Cantina Bar on Tatooine among Saw’s rebels mostly succeed in strengthening continuity or even giving new spins on old scenes, rather than shrinking the universe. C3-PO and R2-D2 feel a little bit shoe-horned in, maybe, and the foreshadowing with Jimmy Smits returning to Alderaan is a bit on-the-nose, but it’s still fun to see both of them anyway.
The reason that we’ve been excited for this since its announcement was to some extent less about Star Wars, and more about Gareth Edwards. First with his stunning lo-fi debut “Monsters,” and then with 2014’s “Godzilla,” a blockbuster of rare visual artistry, he’s proven himself to be one of the most exciting young directors around, and for all the reshoot rumors, this feels very much his vision, and takes advantage of his skillset. Edwards is particularly great at scale, and in collaboration with the great Greig Fraser, he uses similar ultra-long shots to the most memorable ones in “Godzilla” here, whether showing the macro-view of a space battle, or the haunting image of the fallen Jedi statue on Jedha, a piece of design that tells so much story visually. Indeed, the contrast between this and J.J. Abrams’ work on “Force Awakens” is really striking — every shot feels carefully and beautifully composed even when there’s a handheld feel to the footage. And there’s a fun playfulness to the way he echoes George Lucas’s wipe transitions with some of the shots. It’s the best-directed “Star Wars” movie since the original, we’d argue, and raises the game for Rian Johnson and co. in the years to come.
Michael Giacchino had a particularly tough job when it came to composing the music for “Rogue One.” Not only is he the first composer other than John Williams to score a “Star Wars” movie, but he also took the job at the last minute, after original pick Alexandre Desplat was replaced. Giacchino’s prolific, sometimes to a fault — his “Doctor Strange” work earlier in the year was a little too evocative of his “Star Trek” score, for instance. But despite all the other work he must have had to juggle it with, he’s done well here. It’s slightly lacking in a theme as immediately iconic as Williams’ for the other movies, but that’s obviously a near-impossible task. Instead, Giacchino pulls off something that’s distinct from the great composer’s work, but still feels intrinsically “Star Wars”-y — rousing and powerful. And when he does riff on or remix Williams, as with a new take on the Imperial March at the end, it works like gangbusters. There’s no word on if Giacchino will be back for the Han Solo movie or elsewhere, but we hope that he does get another try — with even more time, he could do something glorious.
It Genuinely Expands The Universe
Most prequels suck. Indeed most spin-offs suck too. They tend to give you information that you never really wanted — no one really cares how Robin Hood became Robin Hood, guys — and often diminish the original story rather than add to it. But “Rogue One” feels almost unique in being the exception. By stepping mostly away from the Skywalker family and focusing on the ordinary folk, it suggests that behind the events of the original film were a hundred sacrifices, and that every line-free Rebel soldier could have played a huge part in the victories. It brings new texture and depth to the universe, and will likely embellish and improve a rewatch of “A New Hope,” knowing what went into that one line in the opening crawl. We don’t necessarily want more of these, but if we keep getting them, as we will with Han Solo, we hope that they’re as good as this is at adding to, not subtracting from, the originals.