While I am aware of, and even happen to agree with (to an extent), many of the criticisms that have bee levelled at The Force Awakens, since its release a year ago, it was still a film that I found myself genuinely enjoying. More than anything, I think that what I felt was a sense of relief that we finally had a Star Wars film which was able to recapture that sense of fun and excitement that we had with the original trilogy (I may not despise the prequel trilogy as much as some do – but, I definitely can't say that I enjoyed them, either).
But, despite the fact that the release of the first film in a new trilogy seemed to show that Disney had the right idea, I do have to admit that I've been unsure what to make of these plans for stand-alone Star Wars films. For one thing, the ones that have been announced, so far, all seem set on exploring similar 'prequel' territory – which didn't exactly fill me with confidence. But, with regard to Rogue One, at least, there was also the fact that it was a film set to be based around a cast of entirely new characters, whose fates haven't necessarily already been revealed by previous films in the franchise. For me, that fact, alone, managed to raise Rogue One above the prequels we have already had (and, also, the upcoming 'Young Han Solo' film, which I just don't have any real interest in, at this point) – and, ultimately, it also proves to be one of the film's greatest strengths.
It seems that a former Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), has managed to acquire information about a mysterious new super-weapon, currently under construction – and, desperate to defect, he is now eager to offer this information to anyone who might be able to make use of it. Unfortunately, his efforts result in him becoming the prisoner of Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker) – who is unwilling to trust someone he sees as an obvious Imperial spy. A life-time of conflict has left Saw paranoid – so, not even the pilot's claims that he was sent to give this information to Saw, in particular, is enough to convince him
Fortunately, though, Jyn happens to have prior history with Saw Gerrara, and his faction of violent militants – a connection which the rebel alliance now plans on trying to exploit, as they attempt to recover the Imperial pilot, and learn what he knows. Setting out alongside the rebel captain, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and the reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), Jyn makes her way to Jedha to make contact and, hopefully, arrange a peaceful transaction. Dragged along for the ride are Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) – members of a, now mostly dead, religious order that reveres Jedi, and the Force, who find themselves caught up in the film's central conflict when they, too, are taken by Saw's militants.
Of course, things don't go smoothly. The Empire has also managed to track Bodhi to Jedha. Soon enough, our heroes find themselves desperately fleeing from the destructive power of the Empire's new weapon – the Death Star. From there, the newly forged team have two, equally important, goals. First, to track down Jyn's long missing father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), who is intimately connected to the construction of this powerful new weapon – and then, to locate, and steal, plans which may allow the rebel alliance to exploit a weakness which Galen has managed to sneak into the Death Star's design.
Rogue One may have been intended as a 'stand-alone' Star Wars film – but, this overt connection to the construction of the Death Star also serves to make it a direct prequel to the original film, A New Hope. That's not any sort of weakness, of course – but, is really more an interesting bit of trivia, worth pointing out since there does seem to have been a bit of confusion, among the more casual members of the audience, over where this film fits.
Thematically, Rogue One would have to be the darkest Star Wars film we have had, so far – beating out even The Empire Strikes Back. Playing out, in many ways, as a traditional war film, Rogue One displays an impressive willingness to, essentially, 'get its hands dirty' – as it explores the occasionally morally ambiguous nature of war. There are shades of grey in this film which actually serve to form a nice contrast to the franchises traditionally very black and white conflicts. Sure, the Empire is still portrayed as a near-unstoppable force of tyranny, and the rebel alliance continues to be portrayed as a band of 'plucky underdog' heroes – but, the film also displays a willingness to explore the lengths that some people are willing to go to for what they perceive as the great good. The fact that Cassian, a character who would seem like the traditional 'clean-cut' hero, is portrayed as a man fully capable of doing terrible things in service to the rebellion is a fascinating element of both the character, and the film – with the guilt that he feels, ultimately, being the driving force that compels him to commit to such a dangerous mission. Then, of course, there's Galen Erso – who fully commits himself to the task of leading the construction of the Death Star, with the long-term plan of building in a flaw which might, one day, be exploited (by a farm boy with a connection to the Force, perhaps).
Honestly, as much as I did enjoy Felicity Jones's performance, I would have to say that Cassian is the more interesting of the film's primary protagonists (since, despite Jyn's prominence in the film's advertising campaign, there is a sense that the two share roughly equal status). With her direct connection to both Saw Gererra and, of course, her father, Galen Erso, Jyn obviously enjoys a more direct connection to the film's central plot – but, Cassian is the one that brings the interesting element of moral ambiguity into the film. By the end, I found myself wishing that we could have learnt a bit more about him.
With Jyn, though, I just found that I wasn't entirely convinced – even considering the extra time that had been spent developing her. Jyn's transition from being an outsider with absolutely no interest in either the rebellion or the Empire to being the one to deliver the expected rousing speeches, by the time we reached the film's final conflict, just felt a little unearned, to me. The time spent developing her relationship with her father served the character well, though – so, I had no real trouble accepting her renewed commitment to the fight, after learning of her father's plans. I just had a hard time accepting that Jyn, as she was portrayed throughout the film, would become the one that everyone was willing to rally behind.
That feels like a minor issue, though – and, in the end, Jyn Erso is still one of a cast of genuinely interesting, and entertaining, new characters. Alongside Jyn and Cassian, K-2SO provides many of the film's best moments of comedy. Chirrut and Baze share a very entertaining 'brotherly' dynamic – complete with banter, and mild bickering. Bodhi, who does, unfortunately, seem to receive the least attention out of the core cast, does still manage to come across as genuinely likable, and entirely earnest in his desire to fight against the Empire. And, more importantly, by the end of the film, each of them will have had at least one genuinely great moment of character defining heroism.
On the more villainous side, and alongside some very entertaining appearance from returning characters, we have Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) – a character who, despite seemingly being at constant risk of being overshadowed by those same returning characters, still manages to make a strong impression. Krennic displays an entertaining mix of arrogant ambition and callous disregard for those beneath him, which places him directly in line with what we have seen of the Empire's upper ranks, in the past. While he might lack the sense of imposing menace that other characters have been able to provide, he is still a fascinating figure, in the film.
I do have to admit that I was a little worried by Darth Vader's first appearance in the film, though. I mean, sure, it was a very entertaining scene – and, it was definitely fantastic to see such an iconic character on-screen once more. But, it also felt like the sort of unnecessary cameo that was thrown in just to please long-time fans. It just had me a bit worried that this would be all we saw of him. Fortunately, though, Vader does put in a much more satisfying appearance, toward the end of the film – with a sequence that manages to show just how truly terrifying it would be for ordinary soldiers to go up against the Sith Lord. Sure, this second appearance was every bit the 'fan-pleasing' moment that we had with the first – but, in this case, it also felt like a much more essential part of the film's overall story.
By the end of the film, I was very satisfied with the way that Darth Vader had been used. You might find yourself wishing that he had played a larger part – but, in the end, I think that Rogue One managed to strike a good balance between acknowledging the character's importance, without letting him take over a story which wasn't actually about him.
Of course, Vader isn't the only character from the original films to put in an appearance, here – with a couple of similarly 'fan-pleasing' cameos popping up throughout the film. They make for fun little moments – but, most importantly, they aren't distracting. There's really only one that feels somewhat gratuitous, to be honest – I wont spoil it, here, but you'll know it when you see it.
Besides Vader, and these fun little cameos, the most prominent returning character would have to be Grand Moff Tarkin. Originally played by Peter Cushing, and brought to life, here, through the combination of CGI and the creative voice-work of an uncredited actor (Guy Henry, according to IMDB), Tarkin is every bit the fascinating and menacing figure that he was in A New Hope. Much like Vader, Takin's appearance also has the benefit of providing that important sense of direct continuity between Rogue One and the original trilogy – and, while some might find themselves a bit put off by the CGI work that went into recreating him, it didn't actually bother me, at all.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Rogue One is the way that it actually manages to improve on some elements of A New Hope. Not only does the reveal of Galen Erso's role in the construction of the Death Star finally resolve the, often mocked, issue with that conveniently placed exhaust port – but, the true scale of what the rebel alliance actually went through to get hold of the Death Star plans, and escape with them, lends a bit of extra weight to the opening moments of the original film.
In the end, Rogue One manages to do everything that a great prequel is supposed to do. It tells a great story in a way which may, retroactively, alter your impression of the original film. The action sequences, which make up so much of the film, are also typically fantastic – with the rebel's attack on Scarif, in particular, rivalling anything we have seen in the franchise, so far. Sure, with it's mix of ground-based combat and large-scale space battles, there are elements of direct, and likely intentional, parallel between this sequence and the climactic battle at the end of Return of the Jedi – but, that is hardly any sort of weakness.
While I am well aware of the fact that my life-long love of Star Wars might still be colouring my impression, somewhat, I still can't help but conclude that Rogue One is both a fantastic film, in its own right, and a worthy addition to the franchise, as a whole.