Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn
December 16, 2016
It’s hard for me to be critical about the new generation of Star Wars films because they fill a hole in my fangirl heart. It’s Star Wars, but in a galaxy that includes more than one person of color per film. It’s a Star Wars that lets women fly X-Wings, finally. It’s one where I’m not entirely scrambling to find myself in alien allegories or in the more expansive book universe.
Rogue One is Star Wars, but the ground troops, the people fighting whose lives have been irrevocably shattered by war. The people being imprisoned and killed by Imperials. The start of the film is darker, setting the tone for the rest, and also providing context to the rest of the films. The nitty-gritty of the war is more background noise to the original trilogy — the movies are aware of the death and destruction caused by the Empire, but Leia is never allowed to mourn, Luke is sheltered, Han is an outlier, trying to get by. The true aftermath is off-screen — we know many Bothans died for the second Death Star’s plans, but the only poignant death we see is that of an Ewok. Here is the war for those who aren’t generals and aren’t Jedi.
One thing is the same as the stories in the original trilogies, however, and that’s a lack of women (especially women of color). It’s the absolute biggest disappointment of Rogue One, a sort of cruel irony considering how impressively racially diverse it is. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso is the unquestionable lead of the film, but she’s also an outlier. The fact is that the rebel forces she fights with seem to include no women on the frontlines. Aside from three pilots, every soldier we see is a man, alien or human. And scenes suffer for it — especially one where Erso is meant to have inspired Alliance soldiers to arms. The film itself makes no comment on her gender — no snide remarks about her stature here — but that makes the absence of other women more jarring, not less. She’s not meant to be exceptional due to being a woman fighter — but she clearly is.
Women piloting stands out, and is both a relief and irritating — it feels like a hurried afterthought, as though in the middle of reshoots someone on the production team finally noticed they’d made a critical error in making a movie about a woman entirely populated by men. Mon Mothma gets a few scenes, and Genevieve O’Reilly wrings as much nuance as she can out of them, but she’s still just a side character and a politician — and this is a movie about soldiers more than it is about political intrigue.
The lack of women is only so noticeable because of just how immersive the settings of Rogue One are. George Lucas sought to showcase a different kind of planet in each film, but Rogue One visits every biome it possibly can — from Mustafar’s volcanic surface, to Scarif’s beautiful beaches, to the desert moon of Jedha, home to the last city holy to the Jedi. The cities are populated with richly realized background characters: religious devotees in robes, women cooking still-writhing tentacles, and aliens both new and familiar. There’s no detail too small or too great in Rogue One — it is absolutely beautiful. The story touches on the core of Star Wars narratives — the life and death of Anakin Skywalker — and those bits line up nicely with the prequels, complimenting them and the extension of that narrative in The Force Awakens. But the planets we visit serve as a direct rebuttal to the green-screened landscapes of the prequels. While everything in those movies shone like plastic, the worlds of Rogue One are lived in, populated with relics of a time even longer ago than The Phantom Menace. The locations are all imbued with personality and population, heavy with a history the Empire is hellbent on wiping out. One particularly beautiful shot showcases the ruins of a great statue — elsewhere, we see the remaining Jedi temples of Yavin IV.
Edwards is nothing but deliberate in his framing, which leads to some striking and rather audacious visuals — the audience finds themselves on the side, at least a little bit, of cloaked terrorists with bombs in the middle of a marketplace. Mon Mothma initially describes Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker, in a role originated by Andrew Kishino on Clone Wars) as too militant for the Alliance, who still talk of a Senate even though moons are occupied by prison camps and Stormtroopers. Edwards uses visual language normally reserved for faceless, nameless terrorists for the group run by Gerrera, whose influence on our heroes is heavy later on. We’re supposed to be shocked, but also understand that it’s not as simple as the Council would like it to be. He’s not subtle (and neither is the score by Michael Giacchino), but he’s never ham-fisted when pulling in real world visual cues to deliberately subvert them.
The reliance on visual storytelling is a strength of Edwards’, but also comes with a certain distance from the characters on screen. Less pronounced than in his 2014 Godzilla, this film still never gets us too close to any one person, even Jyn to an extent. Only the absolute most plot pertinent details of Jyn’s past are revealed. She struggles with her past, her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), her desire to remain neutral in a galactic war, but while we’re aware of some kind of internal turmoil, we’re never invited into it. This leaves Felicity Jones in an odd lurch — she sometimes feels too subdued, emotionally intensity too locked up tight even for such a guarded character, and more details might have smoothed that out.
Rogue One plays with oft-seen themes in the Star Wars universe — father issues, belief in the Force, choosing one’s own path — but does so with a light touch. So light that I honestly cannot tell at some points if Edwards is intentionally distancing us from his characters or if it is a weakness. Jones is never allowed to grow bigger, which feels at odds with her eventual role as full-fledged rebel leader. She is all small smiles and meaningful looks, which works most of the time but is sometimes unsatisfying. Similarly, each member of her team has distinct personality, motivations, tragic pasts, but none get a truly in-depth focus. We understand them but the emotion feels sometimes muted — in a different Star Wars film, the plot would stay the same, but there would be banter, more laughter, and broader emotional plays. Someone might kiss someone else, rather than simply lean close and hold hands. However, the diversity of the cast does add to the richness of the galaxy of Rogue One — the panoply of accents really helps bolster the depth Edwards creates without too much external worldbuilding.
On the flip side, that distance gives the side actors a lot of leeway with their roles — Diego Luna plays Cassian Andor with subtle touches of bright, quiet anger and resolve. He and Jones spark with each other when they can, but it is warm, post-battle camaraderie that feels the deepest and truest between them. Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe is probably the most expressive of the bunch; his deep belief in the Force doesn’t keep him from being the most emotionally attuned. He is open to the universe and the universe responds in kind. And he’s charming, with affable smile to go with his mysticism. The rest of the team is given less to do, but are no less intriguing.
Truly a war movie, about who sacrifices first, for heroes to succeed, Rogue One gives us just enough of a skeleton of the political machinations at hand to make each and every battle seem incredibly important. That, of course, doesn’t mean that this film isn’t political — it very much is. The rebels of Rogue One are radicals, or were radicals. Cassian Andor must grapple with his loyalty to the Alliance, his role as a soldier who follows orders in a machine that might be ineffective against the massive threat of the Death Star. Violence is the answer, because violence is all they have to them — without fighting there is only submission left. I would be remiss to not say that it feels prescient, of course, but Edwards lets the audience do the work themselves. The iconography of each side in Star Wars is as obvious as it can get, billowing capes and sneering white generals pitted against battered ships and criminals and terrorists. The film rejects a middle ground, because the situation is beyond that — the Council members who vote against pursuing military action do so not because they abhor violence, but because they believe there is no violence they are capable of that can quell the violence of the Empire’s domination.
Of course, it’s all symbolism, but the movie — despite it’s dark tone, dark themes, and departure from the normal framework of a Star Wars film — manages to create a rather lively display of how to fight even when your droid has told you the odds.
Rogue One does action very, very well. Scenes are structured for pure action and suspense — impressive considering that while we don’t necessarily know the ending for these characters, we do know how it all ends. Space battles are shot with the same loving care as the landscapes, with interesting perspectives — screens, the traditional cockpit shots, over the engine. And the movie gives ships more interesting things to do than simply shoot at a tiny target — they have to dogfight, strategize, improvise. The Rebels are outgunned and they know it, we know it, the Imperials know it. It leads to rather unexpected solutions, nothing totally outrageous, but creative enough that it doesn’t feel stale.
Here is where it is hard to know how much of the buy-in comes from being already invested in the franchise, or skillful mastery of timing, but while the action sequences are long they never drag. I found them exhilarating, and was totally invested in the success or failure of every person.
There are a few other things that simply would take up too much space in this review — what are the ethics of reviving an actor (Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin) who has already passed (I’m going to assume his family/estate approved until I hear otherwise)? Did Star Wars truly need a film with a darker tone about the realities of war? Are Baze and Chirrut married in canon, or just in my heart? — but those are probably better suited for other essays and fanfiction. Overall, Rogue One is exciting and beautiful, a reminder that interesting stories live inside the old ones if you take the time to seek them out.