In the original Star Wars – now Episode 4: A New Hope – there’s a tossed-off line when the rebels receive the Death Star plans from R2D2 to the effect that several people sacrificed themselves to get the information. Now, nearly 40 years after it was first mentioned, movie audiences get to see what happened in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It was worth the wait.
The story focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Instead of the usual introductory crawl, Rogue One begins with a sequence when Jyn was a child. Galen had left behind his job designing weapon systems for the Empire to hide away on a barren planet with his wife and Jyn. But the Empire isn’t done with Galen. When Imperial Senator Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives to force Galen back into the fold, Jyn manages to escape to a bolt hole where she’s later found by an ally of Galen, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
Years later the now-adult Jyn continues to hide under an assumed name, even as she’s a prisoner of the Imperial Forces for committing petty crimes to survive. While being transferred, rebel fighters break Jyn out. She instead tries to break away from the rebels, only to be stopped by the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0 (motion-capture performed and voiced by Alan Tudyk). The rebels need Jyn to get to Gerrera, who’s broken from the Rebel Alliance to carry out his own battles. Gerrera is in possession of a defecting transport pilot (Riz Ahmed) who’s escaped with a message from Galen. Jyn is dispatched with rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to get the pilot and the message. Along the way they pick up blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donny Yen) and his protector Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). But that mission morphs into a hero’s journey when they encounter the weapon Galen’s designed – the Death Star.
In visual style Rogue One varies from A New Hope, partially because the refinements in special effects have come so far in the past four decades. Director Gareth Edwards uses handheld cameras more than Lucas could, since computerized special effects can blend with the camera’s motion. Edwards began his career in SFX, then moved into directing, first with the low budget Monsters in 2010, then with the big budget remake of Godzilla in 2014. Rogue One’s budget was in the $200 million range, but Edwards puts it all up on the screen. The visuals are some of the best in the entire series.
But more than the images, Rogue One has an effective story that’s well-told by Edwards, and characters that you come to care about almost as deeply as Luke, Leia, and Han. The base story was developed by John Knoll (who has done special effects beginning with A New Hope and who was the visual effects supervisor on this film) along with Gary Whitta (who wrote The Book of Eli). The screenplay was then written by Chris Weitz (About a Boy, 2015’s Cinderella) along with Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series, Michael Clayton). Although the visual style’s different, the story blends seamlessly with A New Hope, so much so that the Machete order for viewing the first two trilogies should be augmented. That order is IV, V, II, III, VI and ignore Jar Jar Binks and Episode I completely, but now it has to start with Rogue One since it increases the impact of A New Hope.
Jones is perfect in the role of Jyn, blending the waif-like child searching for her father with the steel spine and dedication of a fighter. Part of the original Star Wars appeal was Carrie Fisher’s Leia, a princess who wouldn’t wait around for anyone to save her and could shoot a blaster with the best of them. For Leia, the change from princess to general in The Force Awakens was simply an acknowledgement of her power and Fisher’s embodiment of the role. The writing of Padme in Episodes I-III wasn’t as strong as Leia, but with Rey in A New Hope and now Jyn, the series has returned to the glory of fully realized, powerful women. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect as well. Luna gives strong support to Jones, while Yen and Jiang are indelible in their roles. For the movie to work, you also need a villain to match the heroes, and Mendelsohn provides a subtle but strong evil presence. You’ll also recognize several other characters that populate the story.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm, and with it the rights to Star Wars, there was concern about the Mouse-ification of the series. Were the new films going to be the equivalents of the Ewoks Adventures? The Force Awakens put that concern to bed, but Rogue One doused the bed with gas and burned it to a crisp. This is what Episodes I-III should have been.
With Carrie Fisher’s passing two days ago (as I write this), Rogue One has taken on an added poignancy. If you go to see it for the first time, remember to tuck a tissue in your pocket.