The JJ Abrams fan-film (make no mistake, readers: it WAS a fan-film since even JJ has pretty much confirmed as much in his own statements) had no real stroke of originality but instead teased what felt like a group/think project’s attempt at originality (i.e. heavily ‘emo’ villain; killing of a franchise favorite; black Imperial stormtroopers; and maybe a homosexual X-Wing pilot). And – for the record – yes, it was kinda/sorta great to see Han, Leia, Luke, Chewie, Artoo, and Threepio back (even if it was in several cases for only a few seconds), but the story was heavily half-baked perhaps in such a way to conceal whatever true agenda might lie hidden away in the story untold yet waiting to unfold in the forthcoming Episodes Eight and Nine. You know what they say? “Too many winks and nods spoil the child” or something like that.
In any event, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was something from the start that looked vastly more inviting for this long-time fan. For starters, it was centered on characters and events near and dear to the Original Trilogy, a setting I’ve long believed untapped and fertile for greater exploration. Sure, there are always opportunities for cameos that could harken back to the franchise’s original magic, but there was no requirement for familiar faces to tell a good story. And the biggest plus? There’s a source for conflict built-in: the Empire was at the height of its power, and this could allow storytellers to go off in any number of directions. (Think what you will about the Prequel Trilogy, but I’ve maintained its greatest failure was its lack of a clear and present villain: looking forward to Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace really only energized one of the three films, and perhaps that’s why the cast just hung around looking concerned or solemn for the first two adventures.)
To my delight, I’m happy to say that Rogue One isn’t only a great film but also its greatness is strong enough to wipe clean the bad taste left in my mouth from The Force Awakens.
Now, this high praise isn’t to say that Rogue One doesn’t have some of its own issues.
Sadly, the supporting players aren’t given all that much more to do to establish their bona fides.
Diego Luna occasionally oozes the kind of charisma one might expect from a budding Han Solo-type; he handles the conflict of ‘crossing the line’ much too simply for my tastes, but it’s finally great to see a rebel truly ‘rebelling’ over the cost to his soul. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera kinda/sorta serves in the role of a knock-off Obi-Wan Kenobi for Rogue, but I never quite understood the who and the why in much the same way Alec Guinness mastered it with possibly less screen time. Fan-friendly Alan Tudyk voices K-2SO, an Imperial droid reprogrammed by the Rebel Alliance but – for some reason – cursed with a bad attitude. (I tend to dismiss characters so obviously crafted for comic relief, so much of the jokes fell flat, though K2 does deliver the best comic line in perhaps all of Star Wars.) And Ben Mendelsohn’s imperial officer Orson Krennic never quite rose to the level of being a villain worthy of an audience’s hissing; he’s a jerk who behaves like a jerk, so he ends up with an obligatory jerk’s send-off in the film’s climax. (On the upside, however, a masterful Donnie Yen and an equally enthusiastic Wen Jiang make the most of their grizzled war veterans who not only carry “big sticks” but also know how to use them.)
Much ado has been made about Rogue’s digital creations, most notably the inclusion of Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by the late Peter Cushing) and Princess Leia (played by the late Carrie Fisher). Others have scored their hits and misses with far greater clarity than I could, so I’ll let that be. I will say that while I didn’t find the Tarkin scenes as troublesome or intrusive as others did I do agree that CGI could still have accomplished the goals had greater nuance been employed. For example, a scene or two are staged so that Tarkin’s reflection is all one sees, and that worked perfectly to convey the required sentiment: in comparison, the fully body shots do look and feel more like CGI conceived for TV’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, and they killed the effect more than they advanced the plot.
Still, despite the weaknesses, Rogue One excels.
Its heart is in the right place – perhaps the film’s greatest strength – and the return to the Original Trilogy era soars more than it stumbles. It takes a while to get to where all is right with the Force, but once it does Rogue rises to the challenge – as do its heroes – treating the audience once more to a traditional good-versus-evil story set against the backdrop of stars, planets, and the scheming galactic empire of a galaxy far, far away.