A flawed, but often thrilling entry in the “Star Wars” universe, Lucasfilm’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” patchy or not, makes a strong and persuasive case for continuing further chronicles outside of the main Skywalker-family saga. Directed by Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla,” “Monsters”), this left-field, much darker “Star Wars” film — the rogue one – has a terrific concept that directly connects to ‘Episode IV: A New Hope.’ Yet the film’s execution is, at times, a little disjointed and clunky. But for many, ‘Rogue One,’ will be the “Star Wars” film they’ve always yearned for: a more adult, rough-edged and passionate picture that considers what it means to be at war and the deep costs of fighting for one’s beliefs.
Part men-on-a-mission film, part warfare drama, while still retaining the elements of adventure key to the franchise, ‘Rogue One’ takes place in a grim era where the Jedi guardians of the galaxy are extinct and the tyrannical Empire is about to assume absolute power. The narrative centers on the covert rebel operation to steal the plans detailing the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, but features a circuitous route to the finale — arguably one packed with too much side story for one “Star Wars” film. Placing its focus on Jyn Erso (an effective, but not quite commanding Felicity Jones), the film follows the exploits of this stealthy, former militia soldier turned outsider now living clandestinely under the radar. When rescued by the Rebel Alliance, she comes to understand that she is a crucial figure — one that connects to a vital extremist faction outside of the Rebellion (led by Forest Whitaker) and her long-lost father (Mads Mikkelsen), the architect of the Death Star that’s about to wreak havoc on the galaxy. From there, a disparate commando squad of revolutionaries, spies, marines and defectors must set their mistrust and differences aside for the greater good. But these are desperate times, the odds are stacked against them, and the future looks bleak.
The journey takes the characters far afield to many new ecosystems that expand the “Star Wars” universe and lends the galaxy geo-political texture. There’s the moon of Jedha, a multicultural holy city and Mecca for Jedi devotees now occupied by the Empire; Scarif, a Pacific front-like jungle planet and Imperial stronghold; and a satellite prison complex mashed between two asteroids (the main problem with all the hop-scotching from locale to locale is the viewer may find themselves a little disoriented).
Much of the morally grey texture of the movie is a welcome change of pace from the black and white stripes of the heroes and villains of the original trilogies. Much of this conflicted layering and darker tone is introduced through the character of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a veteran spy and Rebellion intelligence officer. A man of conviction, Andor’s had to risk lives and employ questionable methods in the name of the cause. The notion of doing what’s right and living with a clear conscience weighs heavy over the characters in ‘Rogue One’ as guilt and regret plays a central role in the motif of misplaced ideals. Edwards’ film demystifies the notion of heroes; these are damaged human beings, many of whom have made mistakes and live with their own baggage. ‘Rogue One’ also accentuates the immediacy of freedom fighters living on the fringes. Like an underground French resistance that is outgunned and outmanned, living during the Nazi regime, “Rogue One” features a remarkably real anxiety.
Yet while these concepts are sound, often the narrative seams show. ‘Rogue One’ takes a good 30 minutes to find its footing — the first critical scene is incredibly flat — and there often appears to be little bits of connective tissue missing (for one, Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, seems to have been significantly cut back).
When ‘Rogue One’ gets too shadowy, there’s still a light touch employed. Much of the movie’s humor comes from the sardonic robot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), the Force-attuned disciple and martial arts master. Both characters steal many scenes and are sure to become fan favorites. Speaking of, fan service in ‘Rogue One’ is at first, minimal and tolerable, even clever. But the little Easter Egg nods to ‘A New Hope’ begin to add up to the point of irritation — ‘Rogue One’ is strong enough that it doesn’t need to rely on callbacks to succeed, but the filmmakers, perhaps at the behest of Lucasfilm, sprinkle them liberally throughout. There’s some rather significant cameos too that we won’t spoil here, but some creepy-looking CGI-renderings often look goofy and garish. While, understandably part of the narrative, given his place in the Empire, the appearance of Darth Vader is compulsory, but he too becomes somewhat unnecessarily shoehorned into the story (however, his final sequence might be one of the most terrifying moments in “Star War” history).
Given the patchwork nature of the movie, even on a practical level, one cannot dismiss the impact of the reshoots. Filmmaker Tony Gilroy, brought to on help redraft and supervise the extensive reshoots, is given second screenplay credit, after at least three scribes had written on the film; almost unheard of by WGA rules unless the reshaping is very substantial. Indeed, brought in at the tail end of production, his brother John Gilroy, leaps over the main editors to earn lead credit — this too is not insignificant. And while the new threading isn’t as obvious as something like “Suicide Squad” for example, the fragmented story beats suggest the presence of problem solving ringers brought in to aid the unwieldy sequences, many of which have trouble sustaining their poignant qualities.
‘Rogue One’ is at its best during its surging action sequences. A “Saving Private Ryan”-esque insurgent ambush on Jedha is expertly orchestrated and each clash communicates a burning imperative in the greater struggle. Likewise, the mid-movie battle and final call-to-action assault to pinch the Death Star plans are not only urgently-crafted, but carry much emotional weight. Aside from its spectacular skirmishes with everything at stake, the greatest asset of the film is its texture and themes. The idea of guerrilla fighters, by-any-means-necessary commanders, zealots, militarized war zones and weapons of mass destruction place “Star Wars” into a very-adult realm where dangers are alarmingly real. As ‘Rogue One’ presses on towards its intense final act, the exhilarating and emotional mood makes for a terrific conclusion that almost makes up for its various problems.
Ultimately, the crux of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” a stand-alone movie that allows for risk, is sacrifice and duty (and to that end, as a franchise film, much of the finale is bold). The Rebellion is bigger than one brave soldier on the ground and there’s a high price to pay for valor. For all its troubles, ‘Rogue One’ is a very good “Star Wars” film, frustratingly though, it falls short of being a truly great one. But it stands for something; honor, righteousness and a higher cause. And during dark days like the ones we’re currently caught in, its inspiring message to defy, resist and rebel is an vital reminder that some battles are worth fighting, no matter the cost. [B/B+]