It will be hard to top the thrill of seeing the very first Star Wars movie almost 40 years ago. But Rogue One is hands down the most emotionally satisfying Star Wars movie ever made.
The story of the rebels who steal the plans for the Death Star is both darker than any of the seven other official live-action theatrical Star Wars movies and more heartbreaking, in ways that are completely unexpected walking into the theater. It captures the messiness of being part of an ad-hoc movement to fight an overwhelming enemy, and the often amoral choices that must be made if it is to have a chance of success.
Most of all, it’s a movie about sacrifices. A lot of them.
And, as a prequel, it succeeds in telling a story that has always been just offstage and does it in a way that will make re-watching Star Wars: A New Hope an even richer experience.
Thankfully, the movie arrives in theaters one year after creative turd The Force Awakens. That first re-entry into the Star Wars universe under the helm of J.J. Abrams and Disney was a wholly unoriginal outing that basically stole every plot point from every other Star Wars movie to create a nostalgia-laden farce of a film for suckers. It worked, bringing in gigantic global box office returns.
I doubt Rogue One will top TFA at the box office. But who cares? It’s by far the better movie. I caught it today during an early morning showing in France, where it opens a day earlier than for the rest of the world. I recommend you go see it ASAP.
HENCEFORTH ARE PLOT SPOILERS:
Hanging over this movie is the crawl that opens A New Hope:
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships,
striking from a hidden base, have won their first
victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal
secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the
Death Star, an armored space station with enough
power to destroy an entire planet.
Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess
Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of
the stolen plans that can save her people and
restore freedom to the galaxy…
That is the dramatic climax of Rogue One, but before we get there, the movie jumps back many years, to a young girl, Jyn Erson, watching as her mother is killed and her father is taken by the Empire. We’re introduced to Galen Erso, who is apparently a weapons expert the Empire needs because they’re cooking up something big. He has run away and gone into seclusion when the Stormtroopers, led by new villain Orson Krennic, come for him.
Jyn manages to hide out and is found by her father’s friend, Saw Gerrera. From there, the movie jumps forward, and we learn that Saw has broken with the official Rebel Alliance to become an “extremist,” while the official rebellion debates whether and how to fight the Empire.
We meet Cassian Andor, a rebel captain whose years in the rebellion have taken him to very dark places. He’s a by-any-means-necessary guy who doesn’t hesitate to kill a fellow rebel when he deems it necessary in order to escape and fulfill the bigger mission.
When we see Saw again, he’s torturing an Empire pilot, Bodhi Rook, who claims that he deserted at the behest of Galen Erso in order to deliver a message to Saw about a big weapon he was forced to help the Empire build. Meanwhile, the Rebel Alliance has caught wind of this, and they free Jyn, now a prisoner of the Empire, in the hope that she can lead them to Saw and they can see if there is a way for them to all work together.
This is just the setup. I won’t give away every plot point. But even while moving fairly quickly to bring the chief players together, the movie manages to get us invested in their fates. The moment when Jyn sees a hologram of her long-lost father begging her forgiveness is a powerful one that also manages to bring a critical revelation: Galen decided to work with the Empire so he could a create an elaborate, secret trap inside the Death Star that would be nearly undetectable but make it vulnerable to a very specific type of attack.
So that little exhaust opening thingy wasn’t just the work of some dopey engineer hired by the Empire. It was a revenge plot structured carefully by a brilliant engineer trying to sow the seeds of the Empire’s defeat.
There are other neat revelations along the way. The first half of the movie takes place on Jedha, home of a Jedi temple where the inhabitants mine the crystals that power lightsabers. Turns out, the Empire needs them to power the Death Star.
During a battle on Jedha, Cassian and Jyn meet Baze Malbus, a gun-toting badass, and Chirrut Îmwe, a Jedi temple priest (but not a Jedi!) who is also a badass fighter. And perhaps all the best lines in the movie go to Cassian’s droid, K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid that has a darkly sardonic sense of humor, and knows it. At one point, when the crew notes that their ship could be destroyed and their bodies crushed in outer space, K-2 observes that he would be just fine, thank you very much, because he was built to withstand such conditions.
Along the way, the Rebel Alliance almost fractures. The main city of Jedha is destroyed by the first partial test of the Death Star, killing Saw and destroying the hologram before anyone but Jyn has seen it. And this sets up the tension of the second half: Jyn claims her father has told her where to find the plans for the Death Star and that there is a way to destroy it. Can she be believed?
Of course, you know the answer. Cassian, whose original secret mission was to assassinate her father, eventually helps Jyn lead a rebellion against the official rebellion, which has decided to essentially disband because going after the plans is too risky. You know the underdogs are going to succeed. But I’ll leave you to experience this part, because it is thrilling and utterly heartbreaking.
While The Force Awakens was killed by its need to constantly remind you of the original movies, Rogue One manages to reference them in more subtle ways. There are little bits of dialogue here and there that hardcore geeks will recall; Grand Moff Tarkin returns to run the Death Star (played by what I assume is a computer-generated version of Peter Cushing); C-3PO and R2-D2 make the tiniest of cameos; and Bail Organa, leader of Alderaan and responsible for possibly the worst adoption decision ever made, shows up at Rebel Alliance HQ.
But none of this distracts from the richness of the new characters, the propulsive plot, and the moving ending that finally makes you feel more deeply about the losses, despite the fact that you basically know how the movie will end: A CGI version of Princess Leia holding the Death Star plans and uttering the word “hope.”
Bravo to director Gareth Edwards. And especially because he also given us hope that the 8 million Star Wars-related movies currently under development will be worth the money that we will inevitably pay to see them.