“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is the first step in Disney’s plot to phase out George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy with an all-new series of prequel stories. How do I know? Common sense tells me so.
Look, I’m not a Prequel Hater. I loved “The Phantom Menace” (Episode 1) the first time I saw it in a theater (Midway Mall, Sherman, Texas), and I loved subsequent episodes in the trilogy. For me, Jar Jar Binks, one of the most despised characters in the history of cinema, is strictly a non-entity; I don’t see how any reasonably intelligent person could look at Jar Jar and not simply shrug and say, “Oh, how funny.” I’ve never understood or agreed with the furor over a computer-generated alien intended to delight children – and I like to think that I’m sensitive toward matters of offensiveness.
Sadly, the Prequels (yes, capital P) also have other issues, and these I take more seriously: generally poor acting, generally worse dialogue, and an overall humorlessness that makes the Original Trilogy so superior.
So along comes Disney, purchasing the rights to “Star Wars” from Lucas for some $4 billion, and a year after “The Force Awakens” we get the first standalone film, “Rogue One,” a prequel to 1977’s “A New Hope” (or Episode IV). If ever there were a prequel, this one is it, and I have to say that in terms of sheer quality, it stands head and shoulders above the official Prequel episodes. Disney has announced it will release at least two more standalone films, each taking place prior to the events in “A New Hope,” making them … what? Prequels! Voila! In about 10 years, no one will be talking about Jar Jar Binks anymore.
I’d be sad if “Rogue One” weren’t so darn great – a deep, emotional, well-plotted, well-acted addition to the “Star Wars” canon and a thrilling expansion of the universe Lucas only suggested. Here we see the team assembled to “steal the plans to the Death Star,” mentioned in the opening crawl of “A New Hope.” Their mission resembles nothing more or less than an old-fashioned war movie in which the protagonists – disparate, desperate, contentious, colorful – pull together at the last possible second to pull off a death-defying, if not downright suicidal, task against monumental odds. If roughly the first half of the film is devoted to putting this team together, the second half is devoted to a rip-roaring, jaw-dropping, action-packed battle between the Empire and the Rebellion. All I can say is that it looks great, reminding me of the climactic, all-in battle at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” which this film resembles in tone and visual impact.
But wait – who are these people, and do they turn up in “A New Hope”? Well, the characters are mostly new, and only a handful survive to fight in future episodes. On the new side, we have Jyn Erso, a capable warrior whose father has been employed by the Empire to build the Death Star, and Captain Cassian Andor, a Rebel spy/assassin whose motives change from moment to moment. There’s also K2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial battle droid who can best be described (well, to other “Star Wars” freaks) as a cross between Chewbacca (large size, indomitable strength) and Threepio (fastidious, articulate). K2’s biggest appeal is that, due to his reprogramming, he has no verbal filter, and everything he says is not only brutally honest, but ill-timed and wickedly sarcastic. He’s the film’s best and most original invention.
The other characters are given a few standout traits and that’s pretty much it, but what traits they are! My favorite, probably, is the blind Chirrut Imwe, a Force adherent if not adept, who can kick ass and deliver withering one-liners with equal ferocity. He’s one of the great “Star Wars” characters, and the closest this film gets to a true Jedi Knight. (All of the Jedi, by the way, are dead at this point in the SW storyline, with the exceptions of Obi-Wan and Yoda, who are, for the most part, not mentioned in this film. Or are they?)
I’m omitting a few other important characters only to move on to folks like, oh, say, Darth Vader, Gov. Tarkin, and Orson Krennic – the bad guys. Let’s start with Krennic, the Death Star boss with an ego. He’s the kind of asshole you love to see die, and he’s a terrific SW bad guy guy, deceitful, boastful and arrogant. Then there’s Tarkin, back from the dead in more ways than one. Indeed, he is played again by Peter Cushing, who played the character in the original 1977 film. Cushing died in 1994 … but has been resurrected to full supporting-role status thanks to CGI. It’s eerie, seeing and hearing Cushing again on the big screen, but the character servers a legitimate function in the story, and I don’t really see how director Gareth Edwards could have dealt with the Death Star question without him. Cushing, in death, turns in a solid performance … even if you can occasionally tell that Tarkin is as CGI as Jar Jar Binks ever was.
Finally, we have Vader – glorious, evil, vicious Darth Vader, marking his fifth appearance in a “Star Wars” film. He gets only two scenes, but OH MY GOD, they are the reason to see this movie. First, there’s his introduction. Turns out, Vader has an actual … home … somewhere in the universe … on a planet that looks strikingly familiar (think “Revenge of the Sith”). While we might recognize the planet, his home looks like Dracula’s castle, and how we are introduced to him raises ALL KINDS OF QUESTIONS about what Vader does in his down time … how he treats his burn wounds … and how he springs into action from his dark, terrifying lair.
The second time we see him … well, we get to see Darth Vader do things we’ve never seen him do in any other film (at least, not post-lava burns). He gets a horrifying sequence in which he murders many, many people, using a combination of Force powers and lightsaber. I wouldn’t dream of saying more, but I will say that Edwards’ Vader is one for the ages, the ultimate expression of villainy.
Is the movie perfect? Probably not, but it does what it’s supposed to do, and what I wanted it to do. It continues building the “Star Wars” universe in ways that are interesting and just plain feel right. There are hundreds of new aliens and spaceships, dozens of new characters, and fistfuls of new planets and locales so interesting I could read a book about each one of them. (Indeed, I think both K2SO and Chirrut deserve movies of their own – prequels to the post-Prequel prequels, I guess.) The film is beautiful, with camera shots depicting new views of the Death Star (from above, down below, in eclipse, and through a planet’s stratosphere) and the production has that lived-in look that separates “Star Wars” from every other futuristic vision ever put on film. (The machines look old and used, the costumes are dirty and torn, the guns battered and scorched.)
The special effects are also a triumph. Yes, there’s plenty of CGI on display here, but nothing like Lucas lavished so obviously on the Prequels – and many sequences appear to rely solely on model work. I won’t give the scene away, but one ship goes crashing into another, and I promise you that both ships look like models on a back lot … and it’s so sweet and amazing to see, after decades of digital tomfoolery.
The film also has loads of humor, mostly thanks to K2SO, and some genuinely exciting battle sequences so well done that they rival or even top those in last year’s “The Force Awakens.” (Truth be told, I like this film better.) Finally, “Rogue One” does something I didn’t quite expect – it sheds new light on “A New Hope.” We see, in visceral detail, how difficult it was for the Death Star plans to be stolen, and how crucial it was for the Rebellion to defeat the Empire in the final moments of Episode IX. Luke was literally standing on the shoulders of brave, selfless people, who in many ways were far more heroic than he ever was. The last shots in “Rogue One” dovetail beautifully with that epic opening shot in “A New Hope,” and its final line, spoken by another recurring character, sets the tone for everything that will follow. I’d rank this movie up there with “The Empire Strikes Back” – and, of course, “A New Hope.” It’s that good.