Rogue One is an ambitious movie: it has to work well as a movie, as a war movie, as a Star Wars movie, as a prequel, and as a sequel to a small degree.
It works on every level. Every single level. It’s fantastic.
(For anyone who doesn’t know, Rogue One is set before Star Wars: A New Hope and tells the story of how the rebellion got their hands on the Death Star’s plans.)
As a movie:
Rogue One has a perfectly sufficient cast of characters. The leads Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor (whose name I had to look up) are a bit bland, but relatable enough that we care about what they care about and feel bad for them when bad things happen to them. They’re a bit forgettable (Cassian more than Jyn) and will never be iconic as some of the other characters Star Wars has produced, but they aren’t as bad as prequel Anakin or Padme. They’re nowhere near that bad.
The secondary characters shine, though. My favorite has to be K2SO, the film’s obligatory droid buddy. Expertly voiced by the criminally underrated Alan Tudyk, K2S0’s cynical humor, deadpan delivery, and complete lack of discretion put him well above BB-8 and on the level of R2D2 and C3PO. He’ll never be as iconic as them simply because of his limited screentime, but he deserves to be.
Chirrut Imwe is also absolutely awesome. A “blind” guy who, like every other blind character in speculative fiction, basically just sees through other means, is easily the most skilled fighter and provides the coolest ground-level action. It’s actually really interesting to see a force devotee who isn’t really a Force wielder: Chirrut can sense the Force, and allows himself to be guided by it, but he never demonstrates classic abilities like lightsaber use, mind tricks, or telekinesis.
I also really liked Director Krennic, the primary antagonist and (minor spoiler, kind of) the guy in charge of building the Death Star. (End spoiler) To a degree, I think he thinks that the Empire is a good thing, bringing peace to the galaxy even if it’s through superior firepower. While working with and under the overtly evil members of the Empire has warped him, he remains a very relatable character. This a villian who could almost be a protagonist if the story was framed correctly, which is a refreshing change from the gleeful evil of the Emperor. I almost feel bad for him at times, and actually feel bad for him at others.
Moving on, the film’s plot takes a few interesting twists and turns, but is overall pretty straightforward. It’s logically sequenced, very well-paced, and engaging. We visit several different beautifully rendered planets, including some familiar locations.
Speaking of, everything in this film is beautiful. The planets are all unique, and except for the few familiar locations, different from what we’ve seen before in the galaxy. The few hand-to-hand fights are fantastically choreographed and the air, space, and land battles are well-conceived, well-plotted, well-written, well-rendered, and crucial to the film’s overall plot. The score, by the brilliant Michael Giacchino, fits right into the musical landscape crafted by John Williams for the other films while still distinguishing itself. It’s definitely Star Wars music, but it’s also definitely not John Williams music, which is something I never thought possible until I found out they hired Giacchino.
So basically, the leads are a bit bland but everything else makes up for it times ten.
As a war movie:
Vox’s Rogue One review had an unfortunately worded thesis: “This is the first Star Wars movie to acknowledge the whole franchise is about war.” What? “War” is in the very title! Every film has acknowledged that it’s about war!
I haven’t actually read the review–I want to give you my thoughts, not someone else’s–but I totally understand what they mean. The other Star Wars movies have been adventure movies about a few elites saving the world. In the other movies, the fate of the galaxy came down to lightsaber duels and one-in-in-a-million Force-guided shots by the protagonist. Rogue One, on the other hand, actually deals with the realities of war.
There are actual battles where everyone involved plays a necessary role, where soldiers make sacrifices to save the day. Some of the characters are battle-hardened and have made many decisions they wish they hadn’t out of pure necessity with survival itself at stake. You can feel the looming weight of the Empire’s vast might throughout the film.
As a Star Wars movie:
Witty quips! Alien planets! Awesome space battles! The Force! Structures with giant, pointless chasms incorporated into them! Need I say more?
No, obviously, but I will anyway. While the movie is very dark, it is simultaneously very optimistic. It is hopeful, never brooding. It is everything that a Star Wars movie should be, and a war movie on top of that.
As a prequel:
The prequel trilogy is very problematic. I hope that goes without saying. But I think its greatest failing, aside from Jar Jar Binks, is that it doesn’t really improve the original trilogy. If you watch the original trilogy, then the prequel trilogy, then the original trilogy again, what changes when you watch the OT the second time? You know a bit more about Obi-Wan’s relationship with Darth Vader, but the emotional depth of their relationship is already established in the OT when Obi-Wan tells Luke that that Vader used to be his apprentice. The prequels don’t do a good enough job fleshing out that relationship to really deepen the meaning of the scenes between Vader and Obi-Wan. Knowing that Luke and Leia are siblings changes the experience– but since that’s revealed in Return of the Jedi as well, you don’t need to watch the prequels for that.
Rogue One is a different story. I really, really want to watch A New Hope again with the context that Rogue One provides. Just in general, Rogue One adds a lot of depth to the Rebellion which we didn’t really see in A New Hope. More specifically, though, knowing what it took to get the plans to the Death Star in the first place probably adds a whole new dimension to the opening scenes where the Rebels sacrifice so much to keep the Empire from getting the plans back. (Mild spoiler alert) Seeing the desperate state of the Rebel Alliance really gives weight to Leia’s quest in A New Hope. If the Death Star is not destroyed, then the Rebel Alliance will not survive even if the Empire doesn’t blow it up. The simple existence of the Death Star is threat enough to tear the Alliance apart. Rogue One also reframes the method of the Death Star’s destruction in a compelling way and makes the Empire look less stupid for leaving that exhaust port open and doesn’t detract from Luke’s victory at all. (End spoiler)
I frankly haven’t experienced many prequels, but in my mind, this is the best prequel since The Magician’s Nephew from the Chronicles of Narnia.
As a sequel:
Since this involves talking about the prequel trilogy, this will be the shortest section.
Characters and a locale from the prequel trilogy return. They’re nice, subtle nods to the past.
I don’t know if Rogue One will stand the test of time. I don’t know what kind of rewatch value it has. But I do know that, as of right now, Rogue One is one of my top four Star Wars films. It’s as good as any movie from the original trilogy, better than the prequels (duh), and better than The Force Awakens. If all the stand-alone films are going to be this awesome, I kind of wish Disney would abandon trilogies altogether.