There’s a strong argument to be made that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the single most anticipated cinematic event of my lifetime, as legions of fans worked themselves into a frenzy over the prospect of returning to a galaxy far, far away. But as the first entry into a series of spinoff films focused on events outside of the “Skywalker saga,” Rogue One: A Star Wars Story comes laden with its own unique set of expectations – especially after months of rumor and speculation drummed up a considerable amount of controversy.
Most of the commotion centered around director Gareth Edwards reassembling his team for several weeks of reshoots over the summer, which a certain subset of journalists and internet commentators interpreted as a flashing red warning sign. Others raised concerns over the last-minute replacement of composer Alexandre Desplat in favor of Michael Giacchino, who was given a scant four weeks to score the entire film. With these sorts of obstacles in its path, doomsayers would have you believe that Rogue One is destined to fail, and couldn’t possibly live up to the lofty expectations of its fan base.
But in this case, we’ll chalk it up to another case of something innocuous being blown wildly out of proportion, and ultimately leading to some spectacularly off-base predictions. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a tremendously entertaining sci-fi adventure that explores one of the most pivotal moments in franchise canon, featuring a diverse collection of characters and some of the most thrilling action the series has ever offered.
Captured by Imperial soldiers and en route to a prison camp, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is rescued by a group of Rebel Alliance operatives hoping to leverage her skills to contact an extremist (Forest Whitaker) with information about the Empire’s terrifying new weapon, a “planet killer” with the power to annihilate entire worlds via the press of a button. It’s the brainchild of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), an ambitious Imperial officer eager to curry favor with the Emperor and his fearsome enforcer, Darth Vader, regardless of the cost. “You have to start somewhere,” he replies when accused of confusing security with terrorism.
As the Empire prepares to deploy its destructive battle station across the galaxy, Jyn teams up with Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a reprogrammed Imperial security droid named K2-SO (Alan Tudyk) to lead a daring infiltration mission straight into the heart of Imperial-occupied space. Failure will bring about the end of the rebellion, but if they succeed, they just might provide enough hope for the Rebel Alliance to turn the tide.
From the opening shot of an Imperial shuttle zooming past the rings of a Saturn-like planet and touching down on a grass-covered plain, Rogue One feels like a very different sort of Star Wars film. While the locales in The Force Awakens often felt reminiscent of the original trilogy, Edwards and his team are more than happy to show fans something they haven’t seen before. One of the most engaging sequences takes place at night, as X-wing pilots use the cover of a pounding rainstorm to assault an Imperial base nestled deep within the mountains.
But even this setpiece pales in comparison to the film’s climax, as full-scale war erupts on the tropical planet of Scarif. Rebel soldiers charge through the tide pools to engage Imperial Stormtroopers, AT-ATs topple palm trees as they stomp down the beach, and TIE fighters zip through the sky in hot pursuit of Rebel attack squadrons. Edwards always spoke of wanting Rogue One to feel like a war film, and the scope and scale of this third-act skirmish delivers on that ideal.
The cast is universally solid here, although some characters are barely developed beyond their archetypes. Riz Ahmed is criminally under-utilized as a pilot with an essential piece of knowledge, while Donnie Yen’s non-Jedi follower of The Force seemingly exists only to impart sagelike wisdom at key moments and participate in a handful of action beats that utilize the Chinese star’s well-documented martial arts capabilities. Both performers are doing the best with what they’re given, but I would’ve loved to see some additional screentime devoted to learning more about these characters.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Star Wars film without a healthy dose of fan service, and whether it’s the mention of certain important characters and locations or the appearance of a familiar face like Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly in an uncanny resemblance to her predecessor), Rogue One has plenty of tricks up its sleeve to remind fans of its place in the overall series timeline. Unfortunately, Edwards goes to this well a few times too many, particularly in the film’s completely unnecessary final shot, which feels more like pandering and less like a choice that came about organically.
But despite an inability to completely separate itself from the Skywalker films, Rogue One manages to succeed where The Force Awakens stumbled, by telling a new story that feels fresh and exciting rather than adhering to the same basic structure and mirroring the beats of a previous installment. This willingness to experiment, break new ground and expand the size of the universe leaves the faults of Rogue One feeling less egregious than those of last year’s film, and the overall experience much more satisfying. It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan.