I had a couple questions going into my screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The big one was whether the film would be able to build and maintain suspense while telling a story that is directly related to events we know will happen in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Rogue One is a prequel of sorts. Without getting too much into the weeds and without spoiling anything, Rogue One tells a story that happens literally right before A New Hope begins. I’ll spare you the suspense—often times the pleasure in a film is not just in its outcome, it’s also in the journey we take to get there. Rogue One is a journey that is thrilling and emotional. A suspenseful action adventure that succeeds on almost every level. If you’re a die-hard Star Wars fan, a casual viewer, or something in between, there is something here for you.
To be quite honest the film doesn’t get off to the best start. There is a cold open that works quite well, but then it jumps forward to “present day,” when the events of the rest of the film will transpire, and proceeds to jump around in space four or five times VERY quickly. It’s a bit disjointed and confusing. The film settles down after that and we begin to get a good sense of who our main characters are and what the main thrust of the film will be. I’m going to be vague about this on the off chance you have no idea what this film is about. Suffice it to say, Rogue One is most definitely a heist film and it operates as such. It doesn’t quite have a “getting the team together” montage, but it definitely assembles a team and gives them a clear and direct mission–a thing they have to steal under the most dire of circumstances.
The cast of the film is incredibly strong. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Inferno) is our heroine, Jyn Erso, an outlaw who has been without her family for quite some time. Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Milk) is a Rebel Alliance spy/solider tasked with reuniting Jyn with her father and locating the…thing. In the cast we’ve also got strong performances from Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen (Ip Man), Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Jason Bourne), and Mads Mikkelson (Casino Royale, TV’s Hannibal). Alan Tudyk is having a fantastic time voicing K-2SO, a droid. Tudyk is a standout in the film and basically steals every scene he’s in. The one weak link here is the person I was most anticipating to have a great performance, and that is Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn has really impressed me in things like Slow West and Netflix’s Bloodline. He can be a steely, unpredictable, explosive actor. Unfortunately, his performance in this film really didn’t work for me. A big part of that is the script. His character, who is supposed to be the villain of the film, is consistently shown to be inept at what he does and is also undercut over and over by other Imperial figures, the one place in this film where it feels like too much attention was paid to honoring or nodding to A New Hope. I’m not going to give away who is undercutting him, because it’s an interesting reveal, but the inclusion of this character (and really one other) is to the detriment of Mendelsohn’s role in the film, which is a shame. It’s one of two weak points in the film overall for me.
The other weak point has to do with an emotional arc that Jyn Erso is on throughout the film. Again, this is another script (or perhaps editing) issue. Felicity Jones is acting her heart out, in particular in one crucial scene she’s delivering a very emotional, solid performance, but it really didn’t connect with me the way that it should. In this case I wouldn’t pin the weakness on trying to connect to A New Hope, but rather the inclusion of so many characters and so much plot. There is A LOT going on in this film, a lot of ground to cover, so when Erso gets her big, emotional scene, not enough time and attention has been paid to developing that particular part of the story. On the other hand, there are a handful of other emotional beats that really did connect with me in the latter part of the film. I mentioned at the top of this review that I had a couple big questions coming in to this movie. Another one of those would be whether director Gareth Edwards could recapture the way he was able to blend genuine character development with big spectacle the way he was able to do in his first film Monsters, but was unable to successfully do in Godzilla. I liked Godzilla quite a bit more than a lot of people did, but it was on the basis of the spectacle and some specific story elements. Overall I thought the characters in that film were woefully underdeveloped. Edwards has done a much better job here delivering those moments and building character, but the demands of this type of movie do mean that he can’t quite spend the time on character that he did in a film like Monsters. That’s to be expected and at the end of the day Rogue One does a much better job in this department than a lot of other big tent pole blockbusters.
Rogue One is fast, funny, and thrilling. The action set pieces are dynamic. The cinematography is beautiful, in particular the sequences set in the beach location are vibrant and bright–not something we get a lot of in Star Wars movies. I had a great time with this movie and I think most audiences will as well. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens everywhere on Friday, December 16th. See it on the biggest screen with the best sound possible!