Before the New Hope — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

Before Disney felt it needed to add A Star Wars Story to the title — you know, for all the uninitiated viewers who needed a green light to go buy a ticket — it was just Rogue One, the first of what could be an avalanche of anthology movies set to release as Disney begins its plans to release at least one SW movie per year from here on out.

Apart from the three new episodes, these standalone movies — the next one is a young Han Solo movie for 2018 starring Alden Ehrenreich as Han and Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian — can be viewed either as boons or boondoggles. They are at once many things and nothing — a wasteful cashgrab to extreme purists, an insult to committed followers of the expanded universe, and/or a welcome addition to the family by pretty much everybody else with an open mind.

For the casual fan wondering what the fuss is, Rogue One isn’t a major episode, and Luke Skywalker is nowhere to be found. It does have Darth Vader, and several other cameos, but the focus is on a set of characters who have never been mentioned by name before, and — for all intents and purposes — may never be mentioned in any new movie ever. (Notice I put down “new.”)

So if you have no desire to watch this, but you’re still excited about the Force Awakens and the next two episodes, you won’t miss out on anything critical — though it will ease some of your doubts about the convenient way the plot sort of connects itself. And if you’re partial to the prequels — meesa thinking some of you are — it won’t really change how you feel about those movies.

It will, however, have a profound effect on fans of the original Star Wars movie, the one simply titled Star Wars at its release — it didn’t get the Episode IV or A New Hope subtitle until 1978 or 1981, depending on which source you trust.

For decades, the story of the Rebel spies who stole the Death Star’s plans was relegated to a few sentences in Star Wars’ famous opening crawl. And now, finally (finally!), we get a front row seat to see how a group of legendary heroes sacrificed their lives to ensure there would be a new hope as a fractured Rebellion united and won its first victory against the mighty Empire.

Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), former Imperial research scientist lives in hiding as a farmer on the planet Lah’mu until he gets a visit from a former associate, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Flanked by a set of fearsome death troopers — “Aren’t all storm troopers technically death troopers?” (Auralnauts Kylo Ren) — Krennic proposes to take Erso and his family back to the Empire to create a superweapon so powerful, it would end all rebellions.

Erso, having planned for this very occasion, sends his daughter away to be picked up by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a rebel extremist whose brutal tactics and reliance on a breathing apparatus will draw obvious comparisons to a certain counterpart — don’t make me spell it out for you even more.

Years later, Erso is a prisoner of the Imperials who gets her chance at freedom when she’s rescued by Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). The Rebellion has come into contact with an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) who has a message from Galen himself. Only Jyn can help the Rebels come into contact with her father in order to learn about a critical new venture the Empire plans to unveil very soon — the Imperial Death Star.

Any Star Wars fan who knows anything about anything won’t be surprised by Rogue One’s inevitable end, but that doesn’t mean you should skip it. Writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have created a polished script that ties together a lot of loose ends.

No longer do we Star Wars fans have to defend the notion of a coincidental critical flaw — it was deliberately placed there by the master engineer! And Darth Vader’s detractors will have nothing to say when they finally see him in action, mowing down a corridor filled with rebel soldiers, blasters in hand. Now, when we see Vader appear for the first time in Episode IV: A New Hope, we know why he’s breathing a little heavy.

Rogue One also puts on proud display, for all to see, the one aspect of the Force that a lot of critics forgot about when they jumped on the Episode VII hate train. How can anyone forget that the Force is a religious aspect of these movies — as Obi-Wan explained it: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” The major complaint about The Force Awakens being a series of coincidences connected loosely together ignores the fact the entire franchise owes much of itself to the deus ex machina literary device.

And so, Rogue One is a brilliant piece of reverse-engineering where the filmmakers worked backward and somehow made even the most innocuous thing somehow even more relevant. Ponda Baba and Dr. Cornelius Evazan make a somewhat random appearance that becomes borderline ridiculous when you realize how far they’ve gone in so short a time when we see them getting into a confrontation with Obi-Wan a few scenes later — if you splice Rogue One and Episode IV together. Instead of being random thugs in a Tatooine bar, they’re one degree removed from Jyn Erso and her team and a few hours — or solar days — from Jedha’s destruction.

Apart from all of the geeky inner workings, Rogue One isn’t, by any means, a perfect film. It’s a little too polished and predictably safe at times with some deep lulls as the story progresses into an insane action spectacular of X-Wings, U-Wings, and Y-Wings dogfighting in space while Rebel troops take on stormtroopers on a planet in the line of the Death Star’s crosshairs. It’s a beautiful sort of chaos that will rile even the most jaded Star Wars fan from their depths of despair brought on by prequelitis.

But if only the entire movie were as exhilarating as its last 10 minutes — Rogue One would be more than just a Star Wars movie, rising to the upper tiers of movie royalty on par with A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. That said, the rest — taken as a whole — Rogue One is pretty fine fare, and it entrenches itself, perhaps fittingly, as the third best movie with the words Star Wars in its title.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay by: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Ben Daniels, and Ian McElhinney

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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