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Movie Review: @RogueOneMovie

Gareth Edwards' sci-fi epic pulls at our Star Wars heartstrings.

Review by Matt Cummings

If the idea of seeing one Star Wars movie every year until time's end was your version of a wet dream, get in line. However, I wouldn't blame you if all the recent news about troubles on the set of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story might have dulled your anticipation. Not to worry: this is a terrific entry into the film franchise, solidly establishing itself above the prequels with a memorable collection of nods, tips-of-the-helmet, and incredible space sequences that should relieve everyone's concerns that characters outside the Skywalker timeline weren't worthy of our attention or hard-earned cash.

As the hand of The Galactic Empire continues to sweep across the galaxy, the Rebellion learns of a new weapons project, code-named The Death Star, a space station that can destroy entire planets. They also learn that its chief builder Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) might be sympathetic towards its destruction, having watched his wife die at the hands of Krennic (Ben Mendlesohn) before being dragged back to the Empire. What Krennic doesn't know is that Galen's daughter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) survived and has been recruited by The Rebellion to learn of The Death Star's weakness. Caught in the middle of an escalating war, Jyn recruits a ragtag team to secure the plans including a spiritual blind monk (Donnie Yen), his partner Blaze Malbus (Wen Jiang), the Rebel leader Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Together, they will encounter the deadly hand of The Empire, its top enforcer, and a growing universe of rebellious sympathizers who realize that The Empire and its newest weapon must be stopped at all costs.

Rogue One is a mostly rousing success, based partly on the risks it takes to blur the lines between Rebellion and Empire. Andor and the others have committed unspeakable crimes in the name of ending The Empire's reign; in so doing, they've become as cutthroat as their enemy, as evidenced in one of the first scenes with Andor. But we also learn more about the political situation within the Star Wars universe, that a costly war is raging without Jedis to protect those caught in the middle. It's here that Erso and her team exist, and that moment of realization is important to the events that eventually transpire, particularly as we near the end. People will die in the struggle for freedom, and Rogue One doesn't shy away from that.

As much as Lucasfilm 2.0 wants you to think Rogue One is a standalone tale, it rests very nicely between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope. Again, it helps that our characters are somewhat normal people, filled with a particular skillset but largely unemployed by The Rebellion, who sees some of them - including Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) - as dangerous extremists who could kill the growing pushback by planets eager for their freedom. That's all we need to know about this space-based Dirty Dozen, because their job isn't to win our hearts but perform a job. But there's so much more to things than just that.

Rogue One is incredibly reverential to the original, going so far as to digitally animate nearly a half-dozen familiar characters, each with varying degrees of success. The last time we saw this play out was in Captain America: Civil War, and to be honest it's done much better there than here. But it's a minor point, because each fits quite well into the story, serving as more than plot devices but as important players in each of their respective jobs. Through one of them, we learn a lot about Imperial politics - without the minutia prevalent in the prequels - and the effort they're already making to secure their power as The Death Star comes online. One character seems ready to take his rightful place at the top, while another is scheming to deny him. That's the Empire as it's laid out in the Extended Universe of books and videos, and it's done with a polish that reminds us of the acumen behind its director.

Say what you want about 2014's Godzilla (I loved it), but Director Gareth Edwards shines as Rogue One's quarterback, directing his high-powered offense so gracefully at many points and then stunningly brutal in others. People will die either defending the Empire or supporting the Rebellion, and Edwards takes the gloves off to show a universe at war, sometimes within itself. Add The Death Star (which Edwards presents as both a pleasant moonrise and a harbinger of death) as well as characters like Darth Vader and you can't help but want to hug this man for getting them so right. He makes Vader the enforcer, redeeming the smudge which George Lucas branded him with in Sith. He's a menacing figure once again whose entrance is an homage to Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones. Edwards and Writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy get Vader, as does the new Lucasfilm headed by Kathleen Kennedy. But they also appreciate this universe from a design standpoint, outfitting new breeds of Stormtroopers in a great first scene and giving us more background behind Yavin 4. They introduce us to more worlds in the first 10 minutes than from any other movie period, a welcome respite from the continual sand dunes of Tatoonie. Rogue One

Rogue One isn't without its problems. There's no crawl and no John Williams theme, decisions that keep it from entering the vaunted trinity of original films. It's a little slow in the second act, and some of the interests behind Krennic's motives aren't as clear as they could have been. It's also clear that Rogue One was re-shot/re-edited, as evidenced by scenes in the trailer looking completely different (or not included at all) from the final product. I hope these alternate editions eventually make their way onto the home release, only to see where Disney's concerns were centered. I also would be very interested to have heard Composer Alexandre Desplat's score compared to the one provided by Michael Giacchino, who took over after the film was re-shot. For now, Giacchino's score is solidly rendered to fit between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, but also fails to bring anything new to the table. These are all minor complaints for a film that sets its sights very high and mostly achieves its goals. If you (like I) wondered whether there was enough interest (or story) in this extended universe, the answer is an emphatic yes, with attention to big outdoor set pieces, fallen Jedi temples, and that Death Star almost playing the devil incarnate. And although we all know how it ends, Rogue One force-chokes us until the very end.

Jones elevates her Hollywood street cred by imbuing Erso with a care-less attitude, which becomes sharply focused after she learns that Galen is alive. A holographic moment with her father leaves her devastated, and Jones suddenly becomes the sympathetic hero we remember in Han Solo. Luna also gains our appreciation as Andor develops from moralistically gray into a true hero, pushing Yen to deliver perhaps the best performance of his career. I've always loved Mendelsohn and with Krennic he's beyond the typical baddie until of course he meets up with Vader. Rogue One plays almost like a mix of Star Wars' greatest hits while developing great new villains like Krennic for us to hate. On the other end, K2SO makes the perfect snide droid comments - like an even snippier C3PO - taking some of the emotional heft off at just the right times. But more importantly, the film forces us to take a side, demanding we get our skin into the game to fight for something important. Considering the new political climate that's about to begin in our country, a story about a war in a galaxy far, far away feels more relevant than ever.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story pulls at our childhood love for droids, evil masters, beautifully princesses, and planet killers by taking us deeper and wider into this universe than we've ever seen. It encourages us to give a damn about something, to fight for that thing which we hold dear, and to be prepared for the sacrifices that inevitably come with the job. Rogue One is a fantastic entry in the franchise, and one that should be seen on the biggest screen you can muster. We're not quite ready to vault it into the holy trinity, but its message of hope against all odds serves as proof that a non-Skywalker based story can work so very well when the right people take it under its wing. We know this part of the story is done, but with promises of an ever-expanding universe, my faith that this franchise has turned back to its core greatness fills me with nothing but joy. It's about damn time.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action and has a runtime of 134 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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