Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is an entire feature film that basically fills in a narrative gap in the original trilogy. It builds its whole story around the theft of the Death Star plans first mentioned in Episode IV, that would give the Rebel Alliance the key to destroying the Imperial superweapon. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of the engineer that designed the Death Star. She is sprung from captivity and coerced into helping the Rebellion make contact with an old extremist friend that may have information concerning her father and the weapon that he’s created.
One of the criticisms lobbied against The Force Awakens is that it was much too beholden to what’s already been done by the series. This movie, given that its premise is entirely based on filling in an offscreen plot point in the first Star Wars film, is even more beholden to the past. It kind of feels like fan fiction—with all the baggage that the term brings. But within this limited narrative playground, the movie makes interesting steps towards adding complexity to the Star Wars Universe. And it executes these steps with distinct flair; the movie making much more of an effort to develop an aesthetic that separates it from every other Star Wars movie to date.
The Star Wars movies have largely painted the galactic struggle as a clear battle between good and evil. A group of virtuous freedom fighters are taking on a Nazi-like Imperialist force. The boldest move that this film makes is suggesting that the Rebellion might not be above treacherous methods. This is war, after all, and whenever there is violence involved, nobody can really come out clean. It isn’t the fullest explorations of the lengths that the Rebel Alliance might have gone to, but the movie adds a noticeable layer of complexity to a universe defined by the extremes of light and dark.
The same complexity doesn’t entirely apply to the writing of the characters. They come out a little thin, an entire ensemble of one-note characters with very defined arcs that don’t leave much room for emotional nuance. Once we get to the second act, the movie seems almost hesitant to allow its characters to veer into making the tough choices, leaving much of the dramatic development to come as a result of external circumstances. And for all the grandeur presented in the film’s expertly constructed action sequences, the script seems unable to provide the characters any goals that don’t involve finding and pulling a switch.
This is all to say that the movie isn’t quite as thematically rich as it could be. Having said that, it’s still a lot of fun. It moves briskly, even though it still spends a little too much time lingering on intertextual references. It also helps that the movie looks and feels so different from the other installments of the franchise. There is a genuine sense of dread in many of its scenes, and the camera lets a lot of appealing darkness creep in. Felicity Jones is an appealing lead, though I did end up wanting to see more of the version of the character we got in the first trailer. Diego Luna makes every moment count, even when the script isn’t giving him a lot to hold on to. And Donnie Yen delivers a magnetic turn that really ought to make him the Hollywood star that he ought to be.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a good, engaging blockbuster that just feels a little compromised. One can certainly feel the fact that they had to do extensive reshoots, that these characters had to be retooled for the sake of appealing to a mass audience. But its attempt to add complexity to the mythological struggle of Star Wars universe remains intact, and in spite of all the baggage weighing it down, the movie feels fresh and smart. And with any luck, it shows us a direction that this whole franchise might later commit to.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY OPENS IN LOCAL CINEMAS ON DECEMBER 15.