As much as I enjoyed the acting and directing of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I couldn’t help but walk out of that movie feeling let down. For all its pep and nostalgia, it had little vision and all the creativity one would expect from a board room at Disney. Rogue One could not be more thematically different: it’s dark, stark, and feels refreshingly new.
Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) brings the first Star Wars story to not star a Skywalker or a Solo to the big screen. This opens up the galaxy to feel much larger, as the audiences are introduced to an all new set of characters – each with zero rumored relations to someone we’ve met before. Certain characters from the original and prequel trilogies are in the film, but their roles range from cameo to minor character. Every significant piece is someone new.
While the characters are new, the themes remain sound. This is Rogue One‘s greatest triumph. Much like Empire Strikes Back, it builds on the mythology of Star Wars, turning the usual black and white of Empire and Rebellion into shades of grey. The good guys are darker and more conflicted, and the Rebellion finally feels like an actual resistance – disorganized and full of in-fighting. Going back to Lucas’ original eastern inspiration, Rogue One feels like a samurai western in space.
Further strength in the film lies in Edwards’ expert sense of cinematography. Each battle is grounded in the soldiers’ perspective while still being grandiose enough to capture the full excitement. Everything happens with a realistic weight to it.
If there is a weakness to Rogue One, it is to be found in its leading lady. While Felicity Jones is not bad by any stretch, she does not carry the presence of a protagonist. Daisy Ridley captured every scene she was in and Mark Hamill invited the audience to go on a fantastic journey with him. Jones is cold, fierce, but too one-note for much of the film. When she finally does open up, it isn’t until shortly before the end credits roll.
The film also staggers in its beginning, while all the pieces are coming together. Too much emphasis is placed on the workings of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) – a rebel extremist who takes interior decorating advice from Jabba the Hutt. This results in several scenes that feel like they never have an adequate payoff, and that the time could have been better spent rooting the audience in Jones’ Jyn Erso.
Parents’ beware, this is not a film for young children (under six). The ‘war’ in Star Wars has never been in more emphasis than it is here. Nevertheless, Rogue One is an essential companion piece to the series. Perhaps the best stories yet to tell lie in the tales outside the Skywalker narrative. Here is hope that Rogue One, dark as it is, is a bright preview for the future that Star Wars could have.