This review of Rogue One contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for the film. If you do not want to be spoiled, and you have not seen the movie, do NOT read past this point. Go watch it! Then come back. If you are having trouble deciding, read my spoiler-free review here.
Rogue One is the Star Wars movie that has focused the most on the “War” part of its title, and that is extremely interesting to me, so let’s focus on that. War is messy, and it hasn’t really felt messy for most of this series. The good guys are almost always indisputably good, the bad guys are indisputably bad. There isn’t a lot of complicating of those ideas, and there’s a good reason for that. Star Wars is very successful as a sort of hero’s journey story that has a LOT in common with superhero narratives, as I have discussed before. When the series has tried to inject moral gray areas into that kind of narrative—like Lucas did with the prequels—it’s always messy. It somehow kills the feeling of watching a Star Wars movie. So what does Rogue One do differently? Well, for starters, it purposefully separates itself from the main line of movies. This isn’t Star Wars: Episode 3.5, it’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and it goes further than that. There’s no opening crawl to tell you what has happened, there’s no jedi to follow, it takes a step back from all of that, and I think that helps it to get at some of these morally gray places without jeopardizing its Star Warsness.
We get a lot of gray in this movie, in fact. For a Star Wars movie, it’s very dark, and it’s dark in a very different way from The Empire Strikes Back, and, I would argue, that darkness is essential to the presentation of the film, and it benefits greatly from it. The Rebel Alliance, like all rebellions, is engaged in some practices that people would call unethical. It has to be. It’s grossly outgunned and outmanned (outnumbered, outplanned!… Sorry). So as a result of that imbalance, they need to fight dirty. There are assassins, and there are thieves, and agents engaged in what some might call terrorism, and there are extremists like Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrara at the start of Act 3, after Jyn’s idea has been shot down by those in charge of the rebellion, and it looks like the Alliance is just going to give up, it’s those morally gray characters that step up to help, specifically because they did those unethical things. They did them for a cause, and if the cause is going to go away, then they will have done them for nothing. That’s a really powerful idea.
It’s not just those characters that drive the film towards exploring the realities of a galactic war. The way that the film treats death and heroism is so different from other films in the franchise. Sure. People die in Star Wars, but it’s always a really big deal, and it’s almost never a good guy. And if the good guys do die, it’s such an epic and important moment that it serves as a driving force for another character. It’s a rare moment of true loss or grief in what is otherwise a great hero’s journey. In this film (AND HERE COME SOME MASSIVE SPOILERS. SO IF YOU DID NOT HEED MY WARNING BEFORE, DO SO NOW), all of the main characters die, and yes… most of them die in some pretty epic ways, but it’s all of them. None of them survive. There is no one left to be inspired to take up their mantel, they don’t leave a legacy for their apprentice or serve to show any sort of movement towards evil in the villain they are fighting. Deaths in Star Wars have almost always been personal. Here, they are just a product of war. The heroes don’t even get to see the fruits of their efforts. They don’t even know if they won. Celebrating the end of this film as a victory seems strange somehow. The Empire Strikes Back is a film where the bad guys win. This is a film where the good guys win, but on a personal level, you feel a great loss because these individuals you cared about died, and their praises aren’t sung, and they aren’t mourned by anyone the way that Obi-Wan is or Han Solo is when they are killed. They were just more soldiers that died in war. And there has been a lot said about the decision to do that by some wonderful critics, so I am not going to talk much about that.
What I want to talk about is a little girl we meet towards the end of Act 1 of the film. During a huge fight scene on Jedha, while Jyn and Cassian are looking for Saw Gerrara, there is a young girl crying for her mother, and Jyn rushes in to save her. Cassian yells at her to come back, but she runs forward, like a hero, and saves the little girl, who is then reunited with her mother. A great scene! Heartwarming, and exactly the kind of thing you would expect to happen in a Star Wars movie… except… The city of Jedha gets blown up. That little girl and her mother almost certainly die. And not only is that not on screen, it isn’t even mentioned. Most people won’t even think about it. But that’s what happens in war. Normal people die, and sometimes those heroic efforts that seem like a win at the time amount to nothing, and often those losses aren’t even recorded, just as they aren’t here. I loved that. I loved that this was a movie that had the guts to not just break the mold, but actively push against it.
On the technical side of things, this movie is beautifully shot and acted. When CGI is used, it’s used well, and the continued reliance on practical effects over CGI remains a refreshing look at what made the original series hold up in ways that the prequels didn’t. I had mentioned earlier that the first act was a little slow, and that’s still true upon reviewing, but that is bound to be the case any time a film is so reliant on a wide cast of new characters. Given that, I believe the film pulled off an interesting narrative as well as can be expected.
When I first walked out of the theater, my initial reaction was that this film didn’t feel like a Star Wars movie, but still clearly was a Star Wars movie, and I endeavored to figure out how that could be the case. This is different from the prequels. The prequels didn’t feel like Star Wars movies either, but the reason that feeling was gone was different. There was just something wrong in their composition. They didn’t look right, and they didn’t have the same kind of narrative. Those movies weren’t clearly Star Wars movies. They just were Star Wars movies, because the title said so (I want to point out that I am actually a lot less harsh on the prequels than I lot of Star Wars fans. I actually don’t totally hate them, but they have glaring flaws, and those flaws are relevant here). I think that, in a sense, the focus on war in a way that is personal and low-level, rather than grand and epic, is what makes this not feel like a traditional Star Wars movie. And the fact that it still looks right, and it still encompasses a piece of Star Wars lore that is essential to the story, and that these characters are so clearly Star Wars characters, is what makes it clearly fit in the Star Wars canon. It helps, of course, that you could literally cut out the credits of Rogue One and the opening crawl of A New Hope, and you would have a continuous movie that makes sense. All around, though, Rogue One demonstrates a capability to make new and interesting stories in the Star Wars universe without them seeming out of place. It was a great joy to watch both times. Check it out.