Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

This review does not spoil elements of the plot.

You know those old movies that Roger Ebert (the late film critic) would famously freeze-frame and analyze in minute detail, scene by scene? Rogue One is that kind of movie: almost every single scene, every cut, pan and swoop of the camera offers a moment that you want to stop and regard, take in and absorb to the extent possible. Here, finally, is a cineaste’s Star Wars.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story might have an unwieldy title, but it accomplishes something that no Star Wars movie since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back has managed: a sense of wonder, and a feeling of grand, high adventure. Rogue One is, pound for pound, the very best Star Wars movie since Empire, and together with 1977’s A New Hope it represents a knock-’em-dead blowout of soaring outer-space adventure/fantasy and operatic spectacle.

Another accomplishment is a palpable sense of consequence. You could argue that the Star Wars prequels blew this, and Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Force Awakens (2015) come close but no cigar. The story and characters’ actions and motivations in Rogue One have genuine consequence–important things happen that will affect the outcome of Star Wars stories yet to be told.

Rogue One firmly occupies the “used future” ethos of the original Star Wars trilogy. The shiny digital sheen that pervades the prequels is gone, replaced by a world that feels lived in.

Another fascinating element of Rogue One is the idea that it brings us into the world of the Galactic Empire. The movie works almost as an “day in the life of…” documentary, especially in the opening scenes set on the moon of Jedha.

That Rogue One ends in yet another big, epic space battle is to be expected: every Star Wars movie, excepting Empire Strikes Back, ends with a Big Space Battle, but the one in Rogue One is particularly well executed, and man, do those Mon Calamaris make good leaders.

Rogue One settles a question that might have been on the mind of fans of the original Star Wars trilogy: what is it like to be Darth Vader? Yes, he’s evil and all that, but what does a Sith Lord do when his minions are controlling the actual day-in, day-out activities of the Galactic Empire? Rogue One answers these questions and more.

Remember “the Force“? In the original trilogy it was a quasi-religion that functioned to drive the story forward without feeling like a plot device. In the prequels, George Lucas decided, regrettably, to de-mystify the Force by introducing the unfortunate element of “midichlorians”. Rogue One matter-of-factly jettisons any talk of midichlorians and goes back to the basics: the Force is, once again, a quasi-religion, without any stupid technobabble and overt, extraneous, unnecessary explanations.

Director Gareth Edwards delivers a sorely underrated job of taking what could have been a by-the-numbers generic exercise (see Star Trek Beyond) and making it one of the best movies in all of sci-fi geekdom. My hat’s off to Mr. Edwards. Seriously.

The Star Wars movies have that odd (but frustrating) quality of being hit-or-miss. 2015’s Force Awakens irritatingly falls somewhere in the middle of the good versus bad (quality-wise) argument. I can really pay Rogue One no higher a compliment than to say that it has the courage of its convictions and sees them out to the bitter end: it goes there, does what it needs to do, and gets the hell out of the way.

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