Once one of our protagonists shoots a relatively innocent man in the back, it becomes clear that this isn’t what we’ve come to know as a Star Wars movie. “Rogue One,” the first of many spin-offs from the main saga to come, depicts a world that doesn’t yet have its dimpled, storybook hero. It isn’t a fantasy film, but a war film, where good and evil aren’t so easily apparent in the color of a lightsaber.
As the film features an ensemble cast, the majority of the first act is a series of character introductions, both to us and to each other. The cornerstone is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a vagabond who appears unusually comfortable in handcuffs. She is busted out of jail by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, in motion capture), soldiers of the Rebellion, who find her last name of particular interest. Her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is thought to be involved in the Empire’s construction of a super-weapon, and the Rebellion believes that Jyn could help them find him. Jyn seeks a reunion; the Rebellion seeks a snuffing out.
As with “The Force Awakens,” the film features superb production design, melding the practical effects of yore with the newest and most expensive technology. You have the charmingly weird creatures made of puppets and costumes, but also—brace yourself—a resurrected Peter Cushing, reprising his role as Grand Moff Tarkin, thanks to some motion capture wizardry. The effect is a neat one, to put it mildly, and better than anything we’ve seen of its like, but it’s not fooling anyone—in other words, digital Cushing couldn’t sit in a classroom while the real one played hooky. In fact, I can’t remember a single one of his lines, as I was too busy observing his face.
Let’s return to the living. An ensemble cast implies our time will be stretched thin among them, so deep characterization cannot be expected. But there is a way around this, and that is great casting. Even though we don’t spend much time with Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen or Forest Whitaker, they carry a certain baggage with them that brings definition to their sidelined roles. Whitaker is particularly fun as the mentally unhinged freedom-fighter, Saw Gerrera, who lands somewhere between Che Guevara and Colonel Kurtz. Felicity Jones is an actress who, like the best of them, can speak volumes without saying anything, which is a godsend in a film where conversations feel like an exchange of one-liners.
Picture a planet made solely of palm trees, sand and water too blue to be real. Nice, isn’t it? Now picture it with crawling with gargantuan AT-ATs, crushing those trees under their minivan-sized hoofs and shaking off rocket-launcher fire like a strong-willed slap. Simultaneously with this ground battle, a space battle is taking place, which, for the first time ever, feels like naval warfare—when a character says, “prepare a boarding party,” I half-expected them to swing across on ropes. Each of our characters has a mission, which means there’s a lot of missions, but they never blend or confuse; the editing is sharp and the action is clear.
Lest I forget—and this isn’t a spoiler, as it’s in the trailers and posters—our old pal, Darth Vader, appears, voiced once again by James Earl Jones (in order to sustain this character, I suggest having Jones record the dictionary). I won’t give away his role in the film, but if you’ve forgotten what makes Vader such a terrifying villain, let the faces of those around him remind you.
Two different sets of eyes will be watching this movie: those of the casual moviegoer, lured by the fear of watercooler ignorance, and those of the fan, who will clap his or her hands sheepishly when the guy who picks a fight with Luke in “A New Hope” bumps into Jyn and tries the same with her. Both sets, I believe, will find something here to enjoy.
4 out of 5 stars