This is it, folks: the last Star Wars movie that’ll ever feel like a surprise. I’m sure Episode VIII: Return of the Fake Subtitle will drop a sizable bomb on the adventures of Rey, Finn, Poe and Uncle Luke, but it almost has to; it’s competing with one of the biggest twists in cinematic history. And that’s just the point – now that the Force has Awakened, we know what questions need answered. How they’re answered will still be a surprise, but we know they’re coming and have seven movies of suggestions as to how they’ll be answered.
Rogue One, though, was a crapshoot. A down-and-dirty, men-on-a-mission-but-also-a-woman-and-a-sassy-robot thriller, set on the ground floor of the Star Wars universe, in the fragile days before A New Hope. The Rayguns of Navarone, as it were. The only familiar faces are more cameos than characters, leaving all the heavy-lifting to a completely unknown band of heroes.
Rogue One is the first “Star Wars Story,” a distinction that carried little weight or expectation until the lights dimmed and the familiar fairy tale preamble faded in.
Walking out, these “Star Wars Stories” hold more promise than the entries important enough for Roman numeral.
The Force Awakens was a new body on an old car. Sleeker, faster, flashier, but it runs like it always did. Rogue One is an old body on a new car. The details are still there, like the would-be orphan, mystic/batty mentor, compromised father and long-shot plan to cripple the Empire from within its own machinations. But the engine isn’t an ancient prophesy anymore, and the fuel isn’t an invisible force only hermits and kooks believe in. Rogue One roars with desperation and runs on pure utility.
There is no “Chosen One” to be found, only a collection of misfits with the right connections and the right skills. A reprogrammed Imperial droid. A rebel spy that doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty and leaving them that way. A defecting pilot that knows the right codes. A blind martial artist with a healthy respect for the Force, and his locked-and-loaded protector. The fierce and fearless daughter of the most dangerous scientist in the galaxy.
It’s just a shame Rogue One takes so long to get that engine running. At the risk of straining my metaphor, the first forty-five minutes of the movie is spent kicking the tires, popping the hood, adjusting the mirrors. More than a few scenes groan under the weight of necessary exposition. Characters are introduced for the sake of introduction but without much in the way of illustration. In the first half, the villain, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), fairs better than the heroes, who make much stronger impressions in the back nine. To place it on the traditional, three-act story arc, the first forty-five minutes of Rogue One putters along with exposition before jumping into rising action for the rest of the movie. To an extent, this split pace makes sense given Rogue One‘s inspiration. Any men-on-a-mission war movie worth its salt takes time to set-up the players. The demolition expert. The sniper. The loose cannon. Everyone gets their own scene to show what they can do. It’s an effective structure for this kind of movie, and Rogue One tries to follow it. But it doesn’t say enough with some of its introductions to keep the ball rolling until the Dirty Half-Dozen venture out on their probably-suicide mission. But once the seatbelt is finally fastened and the engine turns over, this car peels out and never slows down.
That’s not to say the story doesn’t support Rogue One‘s late, ferocious pace. The Rebels find out the Empire’s rumored superweapon is no rumor. The Death Star is almost operational and it’s a planet-killer. The only hope the Alliance has of stopping it lives and dies with its blueprints. The stakes are nothing less than the fate of the galaxy, and even though we’ve known what happens for forty years now, the last half-hour of Rogue One is absolutely nail-biting. At times, it’s as good as Star Wars gets.
Which is a hard claim to qualify. A noted refrain on social media goes something like this – “Finally, a Star Wars for adults.” Almost as common is the not-unfair retort – “Star Wars was never supposed to be for adults.” Both claims are as valid as opinions can be. The Roman-numerated entries have always been more fairy tale than science-fiction. It’s no coincidence that I’ve never known a world where I couldn’t go to the toy store and buy a Han Solo action figure. Or two, if they also have the Hoth version. Star Wars has always been for kids. Even the all-powerful lightsaber is designed to immediately cauterize any wounds, no matter how fatal, so no blood is spilled. But, like fairy tales, Star Wars is built on universal themes and plots as old as storytelling itself. There’s plenty for adults to enjoy in Star Wars. That’s part of what makes it such a legendary franchise – universal, almost magical appeal. So what would a “Star Wars for adults” look like? There have been rumblings (read: hopeless, misguided fan rumors) of an R-rated Darth Vader standalone movie. Considering sex, profanity and blood are pretty much written out of the Star Wars universe, I don’t even want to imagine how violent that movie would have to be to earn an R. Violent enough to ruin Star Wars, I’d wager. Is Rogue One “Star Wars for adults”? Not really. The third act plays like the best matches of Star Wars: Battlefront – an all-out ground war. But it’s not much more violent than anything in the trilogies. If anything, Rogue One goes out of its way to put more faces and names to the anonymous rabble of soldiers and pilots we’re used to seeing slump over and crash in these movies. There’s a cost for war here. Death has resonance. It’s not Star Wars for adults – there are still plenty of laughs and Saturday morning serial thrills here – but it is a more complicated Star Wars perhaps than any released so far. And that’s what makes it work.
Everybody in Rogue One has a purpose, and, in the fractured, one-wrong-word-from-doomsday universe the movie inhabits, everybody has a choice. The Rebel Alliance is the force of good, but they’re still a revolutionary force. Violence is still in their playbook. The Empire is the force of evil, but it’s also the governing body of the known galaxy. Some atrocities are committed as bureaucratic performance evaluations. The Star Wars saga is a fairy tale of two moralities – the dark side and the light. Rogue One is about the forgotten field of gray in between, but with a lot of the same toys.
The cast manages to play that field to near-perfection. Felicity Jones easily holds her own in the thankfully growing pantheon of Star Wars heroines. While her journey toward becoming a hero doesn’t get enough attention early on, she’s the capable glue that holds the ensemble together. Some members of the Rogue One team gets more time to shine than the others – Diego Luna gets the most, Donnie Yen doesn’t get enough – but by the end you’ll be rooting for all of them, even if they aren’t all given a lot to work with. Mads Mikkelsen is almost overqualified for his role, but he brings heart and melancholy as well as a plug for one of Star Wars’s oldest plotholes. Ben Mendelsohn, in particular, stands out as Orson Krennic, the villain of the hour, who’s more concerned about getting demoted than decimating an entire city. Darth Vader shows up, as the trailers promised, and the movie handles him perfectly. That’s all I’ll say on the matter. The Disney era of Star Wars is batting 1000 when it comes to heroines and villains.
Rogue One isn’t likely to unseat anyone’s favorite Star Wars movie. It’s slow to start. Some of the jokes don’t jive with the tone. None of the cameos are necessary. CGI de-aging/resurrection still isn’t quite as good as the filmmakers wanted to believe. But it manages to inspire more original trilogy magic than Force Awakens could muster. It colors in the margins of the Star Wars universe in meaningful, enriching ways. The character moments are some of the best in the franchise. And the ending, that final half-hour, is pure, unfiltered Star Wars: ragtag heroes, epic dogfights, superweapons on the verge of genocide, goofy-but-cool aliens, swashbuckling action and, most of all, hope.
As of now, on Disney’s schedule, this is the only Star Wars Story not based on a particular character. Judging by rumors, it’s probably the only non-character Story we’ll be getting for a while, and that’s criminal. Rogue One makes an excellent case for the nobodies of the Star Wars universe. The thieves, spies, defectors and droids who don’t fulfill any prophesies, can’t lift anything with their minds or know anybody who can. Rogue One isn’t a story about the Force, lightsabers or powers granted only because of who your father was. This is a story about the capable, armed with blasters and hope, laying their lives on the line because they are the long-shot, the only shot at saving the galaxy. Rogue One isn’t about who you are because of who your father is; it’s about who you are despite who your father is. And we won’t be seeing another movie like it again.
And that’s a damn shame, because at times, it’s not just as good as Star Wars gets – it’s as good as blockbuster cinema gets.