Rogue One is the kind of Star Wars movie we haven’t seen on the big screen in my lifetime. At this time last year I called The Force Awakens a return to form, and it absolutely was. But where The Force Awakens was designed to push the franchise forward, Rogue One puts a pivotal unseen moment under the microscope. It’s a gritty war picture that lives in a finite space. It elevates characters who would normally be nameless and lineless. And for all of this, Rogue One feels thrillingly fresh, while still honoring the universe for which purists have pined for so long. Oxymoron though it may be, Rogue One is a new spin on vintage Star Wars.
Chronologically, we’re watching events that live in the space between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. To put it another way, in 2016, we’re inserting a film between pictures that were made in 2005 and 1977. I have no idea what this does to the Machete Order, and I’m not keen to ask. Ultimately, the take away from all of this is that the Empire is at a point of nearly universal power. The Rebellion is floundering. Luke Skywalker is still off kicking rocks on a farm and the name Darth Vader strikes fear into hearts and minds alike.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is determinedly not a part of any of it. She’s in survival mode — a bid that’s not going particularly well as she’s bound for a labor camp, but she wears her solitude like armor, knows how to put a serious hurt on people and is quite confident that no one knows her to be Jyn Erso, nor has any inkling of her past. That last notion, at least, is quickly dispelled when a band of Rebels “liberate” her and make her the kind of offer you just can’t refuse.
All of the finer points boil down to this: the Rebellion has heard tales of a weapon that’s a “planet killer,” and Jyn is the first (and last) hope they have to uncover the truth of the rumors and make one last great effort to keep their fight alive.
Rogue One is Felicity Jones’ movie — we may have come for the chance to see Darth Vader in action once again (and that’s a brief but satisfying factor), but this movie wastes no time in announcing the arrival of a new badass. Jyn is a character worthy of leading the first stand-alone film in this franchise, and Jones makes her a firecracker from the first moody glances, but she leaves room for emotion and compassion. Which opens the door to a ragtag band of compatriots who make the film enjoyable even as it plunges into darkness.
Jyn’s reluctant partner-in-crime is Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Cassian’s own past is not unlike Jyn’s, but his choices to this point have been the opposite of hers. Then there’s Cassian’s scene-stealing droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) a re-calibrated Imperial droid who lost any capacity for inner monologue when the Rebels rewired him. His spurting out of anything that “crosses his circuits” is one of the only sources of humor in a film that’s decidedly darker than the other entries in the franchise. Along the way Jyn and Cassian meet Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) — a blind man who puts his faith and his life in the hands of the Force, though he is a believer, not a Jedi — and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), Chirrut’s best pal who watches his friend’s back when the Force doesn’t quite cover him. These are the characters that give Rogue One some emotional weight.
It’s a tricky task, to carry off a picture and have people care about what’s happening when the end is already written in the cultural consciousness. But Rogue One succeeds in this by giving us a slice of the lives of these characters who were merely cogs in the machine until now. These aren’t Jedis or Senators born into one of the galactically relevant families. These are people who would’ve been background fodder given the spotlight, and there is something poetic in that.
Rogue One is a Star Wars story, but it is not like any Star Wars story we’ve yet seen. And that, friends, is the best part.