Everyone who knows me could tell you that I'm a HUGE fan of Star Wars. If you need proof, just check out the reviews I've done for the prequels. Even a lot of Star Wars fans don't like those films. So it was surprising to me when I was making my list of most anticipated films of 2016 last year that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story wasn't at the #1 spot. I mean, I had just seen The Force Awakens and was on possibly an all-time high in my fandom for the property. However, perhaps due to its exclusion from the saga storyline (at least in name), I wasn't finding myself as hyped for it as previous Star Wars films. Don't get me wrong, I purchased my opening night tickets as soon as they were available, and even purchased the collectible metal popcorn bucket with the Death Trooper and AT-ACT walkers on it. As the release date came closer and closer, I started to get more and more excited... but was that anticipation rewarded with a satisfying experience?
Galen Erso has fled the Empire and is living a life of solitude with his wife Lyra and daughter Jyn. He had been tasked by his former friend, Orson Krennic, to create a super-weapon for the Empire's latest and greatest battle station - The Death Star. However, upon realizing the magnitude of the weapon and the deep-seeded corruption within the Empire, Galen defected with the belief that they would never find him on his humble farm. Unfortunately, the film begins with Director Krennic landing his Emperial Shuttle on the remote planet of Lah'mu. With the aid of his black-clad Death Troopers, Krennic coerces Galen into returning to his work on the super laser. Foreseeing the futility of any resistance, Galen had already instructed Jyn to flee the area and join up with their ally, Saw Gerrera, who would raise her for the next fifteen years...
This movie did have a lot to live up to, as the first standalone film in the Star Wars universe. Not only that, but there was a lot going against this film as well. There were no recognizable or known characters that the general public could look forward to seeing (outside of Darth Vader, who plays a very small part in the film), and the story is based on something to which we already know the outcome. However, none of these were as big of a turn off for me personally as the lack of John Williams returning to score the film. His music has become synonymous with Star Wars, and while Michael Giacchino is a terrific composer in his own right... there's only one John Williams.
Did any of these apparent deficits really impact the film in a negative way, though? Well, yes and no. The characters were certainly strong enough to build a story around, and even though we know that the Rebellion does steal the Death Star plans (as it's stated in the opening crawl of A New Hope), we didn't know the individual fates of any of the characters in this story. Jyn Erso is a great protagonist for us to follow, as she's got a bit of a mysterious and checkered past, not to mention the complicated emotions surrounding her relationship with her father. Throw into that Cassian Andor, played terrifically by Diego Luna, who has some moral ambiguity as well, and there's plenty to digest in this film from a character standpoint.
The rest of the characters are supporting ones, but they each provide a necessary and enjoyable aspect to the ensemble. K-2SO might be the most enjoyable of all of them, which is saying a lot. His humor and humanity is right in line with C-3PO, but with the strength and imposing stature of Chewbacca. Even the villains are terrific, with Ben Mendelsohn portraying menace and a subtle desperation in equal measure. His rivalry with another well-known Emperial official is fascinating to watch, and his never-ending quest for every bit of glory and power he can reach makes him somewhat relatable as well. Of course, the obvious stand out in the villain department is Darth Vader, whose limited screen time is made up for with some truly iconic moments. Seeing him command the screen once again is worth the price of admission on its own.
However, the one thing that did have a negative impact on this movie was Michael Giacchino's score. I'm a huge fan of Giacchino (Up, Jurassic World, Super 8, Inside Out, Star Trek, etc.), and I was incredibly curious to see what he would bring to this universe. The moment the film began, though, I could tell that something wasn't quite right. Not only was the lack of opening crawl and Star Wars fanfare a bit jarring despite already knowing that would be the case, but the subsequent musical choices didn't evoke any of the same feelings that I'd previously felt from John Williams' previous works. Normally this wouldn't be that big of a deal, but having a memorable score in a Star Wars movie is pretty pivotal. Apparently he only had four and a half weeks (instead of the normal four and a half months) to write this score, which is a monumental feat. As such, I am willing to give this score another chance. I'm planning to listen to it more over the next couple of weeks until I watch this movie again to see if it improves my experience. As a Star Wars fan, I've found that it's important to stay open minded.☺
The action in this movie is truly spectacular, and benefits from the biggest screen on which you can possibly see it. A lot of the battles are ground-based, which is unlike most of the previous action set pieces we've seen in the other films. We get involved in the action, and there's a very gritty Saving Private Ryan element to the battles that portray the wars in Star Wars unlike we've ever seen them. Having said that, the space battle might be even more impressive. The Force Awakens had aerial battles, but it wasn't entirely based in space except for a couple of shots during the assault on Starkiller Base. Given that, it was nice to see another space battle involving Star Destroyers, X-Wings and TIE fighters, especially when it's done so well.
Some of the most beautiful shots in this movie are actually the destruction scenes caused by the Death Star. Seeing the cataclysmic damage from the perspective of characters on the planet's surface is mesmerizing, and makes the magnitude of the Empire's actions that much more despicable. It's easy for them to justify these attacks from a safe distance on their observation deck, but seeing the horror up close really sells the urgency of the Rebellion's efforts to find those plans as soon as possible. Throw into that Jyn's conflict at confronting her father along the way (which is very Star Wars) and it's no wonder Lucasfilm was so eager to tell this story.
To wrap this up (since there's not much else I can say without going into spoiler territory), this movie was a very enjoyable experience while not quite living up to the expectations I had for it. I'm glad I took a few days to process it before writing this review, as it's a film that requires a bit of digesting in order to fully appreciate what was seen. The acting is great, the visual effects are groundbreaking, and the tie-ins to the broader Star Wars story are plentiful without being too obvious. If you're willing to delve into the story even further, I would highly recommend James Luceno's prequel novel, Catalyst, as it introduces you to Galen Erso's work and his relationship with Orson Krennic in much greater detail.
If I had to rank this one, it would probably fall right between Revenge of the Sith (#6) and A New Hope (#4), which is fitting as that is where it takes place chronologically. It's a really good movie, but I was hoping for a truly great one. Given the quality of the other films I've seen this year, there's no doubt it will make the top 10, but it may struggle to get into the top 5. Stay tuned for my top 10 list in a couple of weeks to find out for sure. I'm going to give this a strong three and a half stars, with the caveat that it could potentially improve with multiple viewings. I definitely recommend you go see it!
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action