Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is just that. A Star Wars story. It’s not an “episode”, it’s not a mainline film, it’s a standalone “spin-off.” For most, this’ll definitely be the first film (likely the first story in general) in the Star Wars universe that is not an “episode.” Here’s why it’s not like that for me.
I’d just like to get a few things out of the way before I head in. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is absolutely incredible. Its visuals are gorgeous and adhere respectfully well to those of the original films. The characters are well written, interesting, and dynamic, and the main plot (despite technically being written over thirty years ago) grips like a vise. Its got a great premise that it sticks to admirably, and its got to its name one of the greatest final acts in any movie of its kind in recent memory.
There will be big SPOILERS ahead. If you haven’t seen Rogue One, please do not spoil it for yourself. For your own sake, please come back after you see it.
This movie is, in one of the most obvious forms, a prequel. The last scene in the film leads literally directly up to the first scene in the original film, and the whole thing has big ties to the 1977 classic.
I already knew this, and it was one of the reasons I was excited for it. It’s always fun to see a writer create a story out of something that we thought we already knew.
So, yes. I admit that this is something we (I, at least) already knew. I knew about the stealing of the plans, I knew how they did it. They came up with different characters, but the end result was similar. Hell, I even knew that no one would make it out alive! But I still hold tight to the belief that the story was anything but inconsequential. There are ways to make good films that grip like a vise even when the end result is already known, and Rogue One knows all the tricks. Sure, I know that they’ll successful steal the plans, and I know that they’ll all die in the end. But the movie still has two secret weapons to pull out. The big, specific How, and the characters themselves.
The How is a pretty simple one. It’s how exactly everything’s going to go down. I knew that the plans made it into the Rebellion’s hands, but I didn’t see many of the smaller things coming, such as Bodhi’s struggle with Scarif’s cell service, or the free-climb in the records room. It’s stuff like this that breaks up the monotony, and can make something that was already decided over thirty years ago feel new and fresh.
The characters are probably the most important, though. I hold steadfast to the belief that characters and their arcs are the absolute building block of film, and storytelling in general. You can have the best plot in the world, and the coolest setting or premise ever, but if the characters aren’t interesting or don’t develop in any way, then the whole thing will seem static and inconsequential. A film without arcs leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It doesn’t have to be too complex in order to work. In The Avengers, everyone has about the same arc (save an exception or two), and it’s basically about learning to share, and that movie feels damn good!
But the point is that Rogue One is full of interesting characters. Some have less development than others, and some have different kinds, but they all feel dynamic and interesting, and they each lend a lot of color to the plot, making Rogue One itself feel absolutely wonderful.
Okay, fine, enough gushing. Let’s take a minute to talk about the bad stuff. In the first act, the pacing is a little off. The film flips settings a lot in the first fifteen or so minutes, making the whole affair less smooth than it should have been. All of these scenes are pretty important in more ways than one, but fudging the pacing early-on is a pretty easy way to muck up a first impression with the audience. The first scene with Darth Vader in it makes Vader himself appear very awkward, and speak very awkward as well. I couldn’t quite place it, but it made me think that maybe we should be more careful with having him directly in any new movies. However, they totally nailed Vader beyond belief in the final scene in the film (one of the best), which completely reversed all of my complaints. There’s a cut that implies the next scene will be on Yavin 4, but then they send you to some lava planet (I assumed it was Mustafar). There’s this really silly thing with a hatch opening and closing near the end, which I simply cannot explain nor defend.
But ultimately, when Rogue One comes through, it hits hard. I saw it again recently, and the whole film was a little less exciting because I wasn’t on the edge of my seat wondering where the characters would go next, but the finale was much more pronounced and somber. At the very end, I did get a little teary eyed, because I had a lot more time to reflect than I did during the first viewing, which was mostly spent on a two hour adrenaline high.
I was very glad that the writers had the guts to follow up on the premise, as I’ve seen some movies recently that couldn’t muster the follow-through needed to finish what they started. I really appreciated the impact that I was left with afterwards, as opposed to a happier ending used for possible sequels. Rogue One knows exactly where and, more importantly, what it wants to be, and makes sure that it achieves it’s goals. That, of all things, is something that I can seriously respect, and it’s probably the most important thing that Rogue One did for itself.
I don’t understand how I could possible sell Rogue One: A Star Wars Story more. It looks like the original films, reads like one of those great Star Wars novels from the 90’s that I ate up as a kid, and feels like something new entirely. It takes a story that could have been inconsequential and meaningless and turns it into a edge-of-your-seat nostalgic character piece, running at a breakneck pace that all wraps up in the most satisfying and conclusive ending I could have hoped for. Go see it. Now.