From its title alone it’s clear that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story occupies an interesting place in the larger saga. Although a part of the over-arching narrative which had previously been a passing comment, Rogue One demonstrates the accuracy of its moniker by not focusing on anyone of the Skywalker clan and not featuring a Jedi in its lead roll. Yet, in the entire series, it’s arguable that the title of “Star Wars” has never been more suitable than it is for this film in that here, for the first time, we have a story which treats the two words contained as equals. Rogue One is as much about war as it is about stars.
It’s also fitting that “Rogue” – vagabond, tramp, dishonest or mischievous person, also my current class in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and the hottest X-Men comics character – appears first. Not only do many of the characters in Rogue One fall into that category, but the film is enough of a deviation in the formula that it stands out as the least trustworthy and potentially most dangerous of the franchise. Meanwhile, “One” could refer to the fact that Rogue One is the first in a planned series of side and standalone stories which Disney will use to expand the brand and fill in the years between installments of the main films. Or perhaps the title just sounded cool and I’m overanalyzing it… which would be the absolute first time anyone has ever overanalyzed an insignificant detail in a Star Wars movie.
Instead of beginning once again in the flat lands of a desert, or the over-stuffed technology of an futuristic city, Rogue One picks up among mountains dwarfing the small family living in their shadow. This opening gives us the idea how small these characters are in comparison to the forces around them, and plays into what is one of the Rogue One‘s greatest strengths: a sense of scale. Of course, Star Wars films have always used immense structures as symbols of the power its central figures need to overcome, literally beginning with the endless span of a Star Destroyer slowly flying over the audience’s head, but seldom since then have we been given as clear a context for just how big these ships and others like it are. After thirty years of existing in every medium imaginable, AT-AT’s, Star Destroyers, and the Death Star itself have become such fixtures of popular culture that we’ve forgotten their terror. Here are machines taller than the buildings we live in, larger than the mountains we stare awe-struck toward, bigger than the planets which contain everything we’ve ever experienced. As director Gareth Edwards did two years ago in Godzilla our point of view is placed among the people on the ground looking up at the horrors casting shadows upon them. We finally see how enormous these symbols of the Empire are. The sight of a city carved into the top of a mountain darkened by the Star Destroyer hovering overhead is perhaps the most effective visual reminder of the dominance of the force that created these monsters, and the unimaginable destruction they can bring against the tiny fools who believe they may rise against it.
This sense of scale colors much of what we see in the first half of Rogue One, and is a welcomed thread tying together several disjointed pieces of the early narrative. More new locations and characters are induced in the first thirty minutes of Rogue One than have probably been introduced in any Star Wars film since A New Hope. While necessary to the story, the film jostles between locations and characters so much that it feels as though the entire audience could get whiplash from the wrap jumps between the different planets, the names of which blur as we fly off to the next one. Luckily the film does find ground and pulls into the grubby, cramped, unglamorous aesthetic that has always been the franchise’s best. It’s in these times when Rogue One moves away from space-faring fantasy and into guerilla warfare, casting its rebels not as legendary heroes in the making but foot soldiers in the insurgency against a faceless, unrelenting power.
Yet after The Force Awakens (see my review), the Empire is no longer the solid, unbreakable monolith it once was. Through Finn of Episode VII we’ve learned that not everyone who wears ineffective white armor and can’t aim is necessarily evil, but that many are victims of lifelong conditioning against their fellow powerless beings (any relation between the Empire and the incoming American kleptocratic dictatorship supported by brainwashed fools, bigots and cowards is likely coincidental). Rogue One takes this one step further by highlighting the less romantic side of the rebellion through our heroes performing actions typically associated with villainy. This blurring of the lines between good and evil brings the galaxy far, far away a little closer to our own. While nowhere near as sloppy as real life, for once the “war” in Star Wars isn’t clean, and for the first time in franchise history we see a willingness to demonstrate that the difference between freedom fighter and terrorist is perspective. Perhaps one day the franchise will be brave enough to flip our point of view, if only for a side story, or allow for shades somewhere between the binary light and the dark. Rogue One at least hints at this. There is no such thing as a “dark side” when one works in the shadows.
Now, here’s the part in the review where I’d usually cover a few of the lesser qualities of the film. Yes, Rogue One definitely has them, but extreme caution for spoilers won’t allow me to go into depth so in short: certain events are not as epic as they want to be (even coming off as lazy or comedic), the villain is mediocre, some effects are either lackluster or downright creepy, there is still far too much dependence on both deus ex machina and nostalgia (including repeating shots of the first film… and then using those exact same shots again) and the climax threatens to undo a lot of the great, ground-level work the film worked so hard to create. As well, the characters aren’t that memorable or even different from ones we’ve seen before in this series and the performances are… eh (honestly, it wasn’t until writing this review that I realized Felicity Jones isn’t the lady from Fifty Shades of Grey, they look the same!) Even our first truly awesome fighters in a long time still can’t escape being short changed. Hopefully that was vague enough to avoid death threats from people who aren’t able to endure opening weekend.
Any new Star Wars movie will be held up to the standard set by Empire Strikes Back, yet Rogue One‘s closest comparison is actually to an entirely different genre. Putting aside the returning characters and motifs, and the general nostalgia, Rogue One has more in common with war movies than scifi epics. There is a wide variety of aliens and landscapes to behold, but at its core, this Star Wars Story isn’t about spaceships and zooming between planets. It’s about the people living on those planets, staring up at those stars, remembering how tiny they are, and deciding to fight anyway. In a universe of epic space battles, mythic heroes, and clear opposition between light and dark, Rogue One contests that the smaller stories – those disengaged from franchise rules – can be just as engaging, and at times more vital, than the big ones. There is a universe beyond the Skywalkers.