Arguably the biggest of Disney’s gambles following their purchase of Lucasfilm, Rogue One is the inaugural standalone film, the first to fall outside of the main saga episodes. Without that built-in Skywalker name recognition, would audiences still show up?
Rogue One is a smart choice of story for a standalone, as it dovetails directly into A New Hope. It’s a tight, simple plot, the inspired brainchild of ILM effects legend John Knoll, who realized that one of the lines from the crawl in the original Star Wars would make an excellent movie: the story of how a daring team of rebels stole the Death Star plans.
With that as the starting point, the story team and filmmakers (including writers Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz of Twilight: New Moon and American Pie fame, and director Gareth Edwards) set about creating that rebel team, and their deadly mission.
The movie underwent significant reshoots, with the Bourne movies’ Tony Gilroy taking on some writing and possibly directing duties too, all in the name of making this the best movie it could possibly be. This generated a lot of noise about whether the movie was “in trouble”… but look, here’s the thing: most movies get reshoots to some degree. The Bourne Identity reshot for almost a year, and that was a nailed-on classic. In Rogue One’s case? Although we’ll never know what the original version was like, you gotta assume the reshoots were a good thing, because the end result is a great movie.
However, the first viewing is slightly disconcerting. The early trailers were made before the reshoots, and as such they contain many lines of dialogue, beats, shots and entire scenes and sequences that are not in the final movie, meaning we can see just how drastic some of those changes were, particularly to the final act.
That first time around is frequently an experience of expecting something that you’re not going to get.
The second viewing does a Death Star test shot on your preconceptions, and shorn of those expectations, is a much purer experience.
Because the final version of this movie is something to behold.
Intense, thrilling, moving, fun when it wants to be, bleak most of the time, but always, always, with those true Star Wars vibes. The team of rebels is compelling and well-drawn. Jyn Erso is a gutsy, bold female lead, brought to emotionally vivid life in Felicity Jones’s brilliant, affecting performance. Diego Luna is perfect as the morally compromised Cassian. Riz Ahmed caps off a stellar year for him (The Night Of, The OA, the Hamilton Mixtape and a Swet Shop Boys album) with a great turn as a defecting Imperial pilot. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are fantastic as the blind force-sensitive Chirrut and his laser cannon-wielding protecter Baze. And Alan Tudyk does a fantastic job as the ultra-snarky K2-S0.
The team get pulled together in challenging, thrilling ways as the clock ticks on the Empire starting to unleash the Death Star’s full, planet-killing potential. The core of the story is, smartly, an emotional one: Jyn’s relationship with the father who was taken from her at a very young age. This drives her choices and the arc of the movie, within that tight heist structure. Although the beginning of the movie is a little stuttery, starting with a disconcerting stab of horns on the soundtrack, and jumping around fast between locations and timelines, once it settles in, it MOVES, and that final act, which leads up to just before New Hope starts, is outstanding (SPOILER: seeing Darth Vader going wild in full Terminator mode might just be the greatest scene in the movie), and, in the end, powerfully moving.
Cue the waterworks.
Is it perfect? Not quite. There are some issues. The aforementioned stop-start of the opening, some of the musical cues being jarring (e.g. the super-triumphant scoring of the two star destroyers scene near the end, and the actual theme of the movie over the title card), the need for more humor (the droid is hilarious, but there were still several moments where you long for a some extra biting sarcasm). The skipping between timelines short-changed Jyn’s character somewhat, making her motivations a little scattershot to start with. And Krennic’s character was relegated from the powerful villain promised by the trailers, to a frustrated, powerless bureaucrat who is only the third most important Empire figure in the movie (fourth if you count the not-seen but mentioned Emperor); which is a shame, because Ben Mendelsohn was magnificent in the role, and deserved a more iconic villain to sink his teeth into.
However, those are minor niggles, and overall, Rogue One is a powerful, exciting, hugely enjoyable experience, full of those sweet Star Wars feelings, with a genuinely epic third act that sends you thrillingly headlong back into the original trilogy.
And as far as the future of the Star Wars standalone movies goes?
Rogue One more than gives you hope.
And, unexpectedly, it serves as a beautiful final tribute to Carrie Fisher, whose tragic, devastating passing affected us all in so many ways. RIP to one of our most beloved, iconic, smart, inspiring and humble heroines. She will be missed.