Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review: Moral Complexity and Fantastic Action Elevate a Clustered Film
There was a time when Rogue One would have been impossible. Following Revenge of the Sith, Lucas stated that he would no longer direct any Star Wars films, to the relief and disappointment of fans. To some, it seemed as if we had reached the end of the line. Eleven years later, we have the first Star Wars film without any Jedi, completely centered on the war in Star Wars.
Where Rogue One succeeds, is in its portrayal of the Rebellion and the Empire just before A New Hope: two sides locked in an ugly civil war, in which neither is truly clean. It extends the tone and possible audience of the Star Wars films, and allows us to see a world in which the Jedi are gone. Most importantly of all: it abandons many of the Star Wars tropes while still presenting an entertaining film.
The plot of Rogue One is simple: a group of rebels with knowledge of impending doom forge a daring mission to retrieve the Death Star plans. It could have felt generic, and it could have felt passible. But for two reasons, this film was anything but.
From the second Rogue One started, I knew that it would unapologetically break from many Star Wars conventions because of one thing it lacked: a title crawl. The title crawl has been a staple of Star Wars since 1977, and it is for this reason that I am glad Rogue One rejected it. If Star Wars wants to survive for years to come, the franchise needs to take risks with its story telling, and Rogue One certainly takes risks in a major way: it’s dark, and it’s grey.
We have seen dark Star Wars films before, such as The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith, but those films still had moments of levity, moments that Rogue One lacks. There are no comments about fuzzballs or giant iguanas in Rogue One, instead, the film presents a war-torn world in which the only weapon is hope. The world of this film is desolate and dire, a feeling well captured by its protagonist.
Jyn Erso’s, played by Felicity Jones, captures the tone of this film perfectly. She is tough, angry, bitter, and brave, qualities she had earned while living in a world dominated by the Empire. As the trailers reveal, she is new to the Rebellion at the start of the film. What truly surprised me was that she discovers that the group is far more unethical than she or the audience expected.
This is where Rogue One takes its true risk. Some might say that a film of this caliber is too publicized and too action-packed to be considered any sort of risk, but I disagree with that entirely.
Star Wars has long been placed in the category of films which portray the struggles of good vs. evil. The eternal, righteous Jedi, against the evil, rash Sith. The noble and brave Rebellion against the all-powerful and corrupt Empire.
The reason why Star Wars, and other films like it are so popular is because this struggle is easy to portray, and it is easy to accept. It doesn’t require the audience to think, and it doesn’t burden the audience with mixed feelings about its protagonists. The Star Wars films present a clear world, like the one many of us believed in as children: there are resilient forces of good, and there are insidious forces of evil.
Rogue One has the courage to throw that out the window. The Rebellion is still good, and the Empire is still evil, but the lines have been blurred considerably. The Rebellion pursues actions and delivers orders that we would never have seen in A New Hope. By doing this, Rogue One does two things: it presents a more complex environment, and it alienates part of the Star Wars audience.
There will be members of the audience who saw The Force Awakens last year, and are unable to accept the new take on the Rebellion. This is inescapable, and it is why dark and morally complex films have a difficult time obtaining massive box office hauls. For a franchise like Star Wars, which has long been viewed as a family series, to present a world so different than what we have seen before is a major milestone.
But even the members of the audience who are unwilling to accept the darker side of the Rebellion will be able to find and enjoy phenomenal action sequences. Rogue One may offer moral complexity, but it doesn’t shy away from raw entertainment either.
The first true action scene is intense and fast paced, but in a different way than previous films. Before, the action scenes were fun to watch purely based on their visuals, but now there is an added feeling of intensity for one reason: this time the characters feel in danger. Was anyone ever concerned that Han Solo would be killed by a Storm Trooper, or that Luke Skywalker would be killed by the Wampa? Now, every action scene feels as if it could be someone’s last.
And on the raw entertainment side of things: the action is still fun to watch based on its visuals alone. Without spoiling anything, I would venture to say that the climax contains the best action we have seen from the Star Wars franchise yet.
With so much going for it, what holds it back?
Where Rogue One fails, is in its more intimate aspects. Unfortunately, the more you look into Rogue One, the shallower it becomes. This is because of one problem, and it’s a problem that could have been fixed with four added minutes of screen time: the supporting cast.
The film itself isn’t morally shallow, but several of the characters are. What irritates me the most about this is that none of them [the characters] felt dull, each one of them stood out in one way or another. K2SO was hilarious as the brilliant and sarcastic droid, Donnie Yen’s character, Chirrut Imwe, was masterfully portrayed as the wise and skilled warrior, even Krennic, the imperial officer tasked with hunting the rebels, was highly entertaining.
Then what’s the problem?
None of them are fleshed out. The film moves so fast that we barely get any backstory on any of them.
Luckily, you won’t want to pull a Jar Jar and place your tongue through a pod racer while watching the film, but the amount of potential each character has almost makes it worse when the film concludes and we are left wondering about them.
Jokes aside, this problem may come to haunt Rogue One’s future success in the hearts of fans. Luckily, Jyn Erso’s character is very well realized, but again, that almost makes it worse when you observe the other, more charismatic characters. As for Darth Vader’s role, he is present in the film, but only sparingly so. The film could have been improved with added screen time from the character, but his absence doesn’t bring down the film tremendously.
I do not believe the character flaw truly hinders Rogue One, as it still delivers a world which can be discussed and deconstructed. I love this film for the direction in which it pushes the series: towards a place with few conventions. We’ll have to wait for Episode VIII to find out if Star Wars intends to deliver more original storytelling, but for now, I am highly satisfied with Rogue One.