Rogue One: A Story Wars Story

I was thinking…

…when following in the footsteps of a filmic predecessor, certain aspects of that prior movie can be matched, often without difficulty: a matching visual aesthetic, a similar musical composition, even a familiar style of dialogue.

What cannot be done with unmitigated success is the capturing of the same feel a film’s progenitor originally established.

The feel of a film is so nebulous, any premeditated attempt to match a feel will fail, at best, 50 percent of the time. To make a greater claim is simply untenable. That is not to say a collaborative team does not strive their hardest and do their best in the attempt, it simply means conjuring up the same emotions, the same state of mind, the same thrill every person felt years before is an impossibility.

Some may feel similarly, yes. But will all? Certainly not.

Allow me to elucidate through example. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens (read the review here) opened in 2015, one of my friends contacted me immediately after seeing the morning screening on opening day. It was, he said, difficult for him to go back to work because he had the urge to go home, get out all of his old Star Wars figures and play with them like he had when he was a kid.

The Force had not been the only thing to awaken for him–so had his childhood.

I attended a screening later that evening, my trepidation somewhat eased by my friend’s positive report. When the movie ran its course, however, I found myself deflated, depressed and ready to go home–not to dig out my old Star Wars stuff, but to wallow in misery. I didn’t want to even think about Star Wars. That carefree, innocent and adventurous spirit of my youth had not been awakened. It had been all but crushed.

How can that be?

While my friend had been touched by the nostalgic feel of the film, I–perhaps the more cynical of the two of us–saw it as spitting in the face of everything the original trilogy had set up and, subsequently, sewn up.

That, and they had killed my favorite movie character of all time.

But therein lies my whole point. We have lived out entire lives since seeing the original film and, therefore, trying to see through the eyes of a child when some of ours are clouded over with the metaphorical cataracts of adult experience is not possible for all of us.

So, when I say Rogue One does a better job at tapping into that nebulous feeling of the original story than any other Star Wars films released since the original trilogy, you know I am not engaging in hyperbole nor am I seeing through the eyes of a child. Even with my cynical vision, I saw something, felt something akin to what I felt sitting in the back seat of my parents’ old, green Mercury at the Starlite Drive-In Theater all those decades ago.

But, as Levar Burton used to say, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”

Following a motley crew of rebels, Rogue One leads up to the opening scroll of 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope.

An Imperial scientist named Galen Erso (Mads MikkelsenDoctor Strange, Casino Royale) is trying to live a peaceful existence on a backwater world with his wife and daughter when Imperial Director Krennic (Ben MendelsohnThe Dark Knight Rises) comes calling.

After her mother is murdered at the hands of Krennic’s Death Troopers and her father is forcibly pressed back into service, little Jyn Erso is rescued and raised by a rebel freedom fighter named Saw Gerrera (Forest WhitakerThe Arrival).

Years later, Jyn (Felicity JonesInferno, The Theory of Everything) is rescued from an Imperial prison by members of the Rebel Alliance, specifically one Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a captain in Rebel Intelligence. Believed she can be used to help gain information about the Empire’s new planet-killer weapon, Jyn is conscripted into the Rebellion.

The pair, along with Cassian’s sidekick–the pessimistic, reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan TudykSerenity)–seek out to gather all the information they can, recruiting other enemies of the Empire along the way.

On the ruined planet of Jedha, they meet Chirrut Imwe (Donnie YenIp Man) and Baze Malbus (Jiang WenLet the Bullets Fly)–two Guardians of the Whills–and an Imperial cargo pilot named Bohdi Rook (Riz AhmedJason Bourne) who has defected to the Rebellion.

Against all odds, they must acquire the plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the dreaded Death Star, before it can be turned loose on the galaxy.

Although the overall feel of Rogue One is very Star Wars-y, there are a couple of minor points that detract somewhat. These are truly the only flaws and, arguably, can be said to be stylistic choices meant to set it apart from the so-called ‘episodic’ Star Wars films.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, change is the lack of an opening scroll. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy announced months before the film’s release that it would most likely be omitted for the aforementioned reason. While I do not agree with her choice, I understand it.

Missing also are the use of optical wipes to transition from scene to scene. While the decidedly small number of them in The Force Awakens irked me greatly, I understand why they were not being used in Rogue One. It is for the same reason there was no scroll.

John Williams’ iconic music is also not present, partially because of the composer’s advanced age, partially because these one-shot films are supposed to run along a tangent off of the regular saga. Composer Michael Giacchino does reprise some of Williams’ original Star Wars motifs, but there are a couple of moments–I’m thinking specifically of the Hope motif meant to be the over-arcing theme of the film–that smack a bit too much of Giacchino’s previous work for the Star Trek franchise.

For shame.

However, that is also where my opinion of this film finds its pivot point. Giacchino also manages to fill the score with stirring, sweeping movements truly worthy of the Star Wars saga. Tapping into Williams’ style without copying it, he manages to draw forth from the well of the subconscious that sunken elixir of musically-accessed emotion.

Of particular note is the Guardian of the Whills Suite (you can listen to it here). Representing the spiritual nature of those who believe in the Force but do not necessarily wield it, this suite is grand yet humble–brought to a soul-churning choral climax through a peaceful ebb and flow where most musical compositions would build to a crescendo. It conjures feelings similar to that of Miklos Rozsa’s masterpiece score from 1953’s Ben-Hur.

Overall, having heard many of Giacchino’s other works, I would dare say this score is his magnum opus.

While the foundation of the story had been laid 40 years ago, the details are carried out with precision, leaving very few holes through which one could pilot a Star Destroyer. The same cannot be said about some other Star Wars films.

The casting choices are phenomenal as well. Although Felicity Jones has been given the front seat–largely for political reasons–Rogue One is truly an ensemble piece and every member of it performs exquisitely. I cannot picture anyone else filling those roles as well or performing as flawlessly as this cast does. Again, the same cannot be said about many of the other Star Wars films.

Filled with exotic locations and memorable sets, Rogue One again feels like it takes place in a galaxy far, far away. The moon of Jedha and its holy city come across as a sort of science fiction Jerusalem or Constantinople during the Crusades.

Perhaps meant to also mimic that are the homages–whether purposeful or accidental–to Frank Herbert’s Dune. Saw Gerrera’s freedom fighters, in very Fremen-like fashion, hit Imperial shipments for highly prized natural resources. And Jyn Erso’s alias is Leanna Halleck, possibly a nod to the warrior/balladeer Gurney Halleck. There are other moments in the film that hint at Herbert’s master work, but I do not wish to give away any other details.

The film is also filled–from the opening shot to the final iris out–with eye-popping visuals. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) frames nearly every moment with artistic precision. Color, light and composition play off each other, with the Death Star images standing above nearly everything else in the picture. Every time it is seen, it is breathtaking in a strikingly new way.

And, of course, there are the special effects. Star Wars has always been seen as the benchmark–the standard against which all other films are measured. This film sets that mark higher than ever before. A computer generated Peter Cushing is pulled off with such precision, the uncanny valley is almost entirely left below, despite that cloying, ethereal ‘just not quite right’ feeling one still gets from the synthespian’s lip movement. Nevertheless, a new technical benchmark has been reached.

Like 2015’s The Force Awakens, I did not want to write a review until I felt I had given this movie as unbiased a shake as possible. After my sixth viewing, I feel my emotional attachment to Rogue One only strengthening, however. And considering the entire climactic battle of the film is an almost perfect parallel to the major battle in my own book, Monarchy’s Shadow (published in 2007), to still love this film as much as I do is saying something. While I may not quite feel like a kid again, there is that urge to bust out the ol’ Star Wars toys.

Ammo Dump rating: 9 out of 10 Death Star blasts

I’ll talk more about this film and others during my radio show every Friday afternoon at 4:10 pm. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @ALphaEXray.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rated PG-13
Run time: 134 minutes (2 hours 14 minutes)

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