Rogue One is not about people who get a medal and a kiss from the princess.
Rogue One is a war film. And it’s very, very good.
Rogue One is Star Wars. The movie looks like director Gareth Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser distilled it out of establishing shots of bustling city underbellies from the original trilogy, and the cover of every pulp-paper-printed sci-fi paperback that branded itself into your brain on some lazy bookstore afternoon. True, Rogue One is the first Star Wars film without a Jedi in the lead — but the Jedi’s absence looms larger in the story than their presence ever could.
Rogue One is not like Star Wars. Rogue One has title cards that announce the names of planets, and it needs them. Its opening shot — the traditional trifecta of the Star Wars Opening: the planet, the ship and the shadow — springs onto the screen not with a joyous fanfare and a slow pan, but a stabbing jolt of horns punctuating a hard cut from black. Rogue One doesn’t have a crawl; instead, it begins at the beginning.
Drifter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is hauled before the council of the Rebel Alliance, which has word that a former ally is in possession of an Imperial defector. This defector knows the location of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), Jyn’s father and the mastermind behind the Imperial navy’s weapons program. To the Rebels, Jyn is the key to bringing her father before the Imperial Senate to testify of the Emperor’s secret crimes. But Galen’s own plans — and the first use of the Death Star on a live target — change things significantly for Jyn, her Rebel handler Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the motley crew of Imperial defectors and has-been mystics they somewhat accidentally gather.
Each member of this ensemble cast is established with pinpoint efficiency, but Jyn and Cassian are our protagonists — they’re the only characters in the film who have a relationship that truly evolves over its course, as the rebel soldier and the vagabond grow to trust each other. The final expression of that trust underscores the film’s most gut-wrenching moment.
Let me take this moment for an aside: You should not bring small children to Rogue One. I haven’t quite worked out how I feel about that yet.
The standout stars of Rogue One are Donnie Yen’s blind, Force-sensitive warrior, Chirrut Îmwe, and Alan Tudyk’s uninhibited droid, K-2SO, who steal every scene they’re in. Less impressive is the CGI used to bring Peter Cushing’s likeness back from the grave to impersonate Governor Tarkin, which never quite manages to escape the realm of cartoony. Rogue One is littered with cameo appearances big and small from A New Hope — most of which make sense, considering that the film is set mere days before the story of the first Star Wars movie begins — but a few of them land on the jarring side of clever, and there’s one that I’m not sure even makes basic continuity sense.
Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is also unlikely to make anybody’s list of most commanding or compelling Star Wars villains. But it makes a kind of sense that this story of the small heroes who’ve gone unsung in the Star Wars films until now would face an antagonist in the same position, dwarfed by the in-universe power and sheer mythic presence of characters like Darth Vader.
And Rogue One is a movie in which a nuclear holocaust (well, the Star Wars equivalent) is less harrowing to watch than 60 seconds of Darth Vader.
It’s difficult to talk about how it feels to watch Rogue One without giving too much away. Much like The Force Awakens, the movie turns on an emotional fulcrum that only exists because of the cultural context of what we think a Star Wars movie should be. Rogue One turns on that pin more gracefully — and to very different effect — than its immediate predecessor.
It is the first Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen where I genuinely felt as if I didn’t know how it was going to end — even though, more than any other, its ending is obvious and established. The Rebels succeed in liberating the Death Star plans. The space station is destroyed in a daring offensive. Some years later, the Rebellion is won.
I spent the third act of the film rigid in my seat, and the very last of it with my hand over my gaping mouth. I can’t wait to watch the same thing happen to everyone else I know.