This review contains spoilers. Reading beyond this paragraph means you’ve either seen the movie and care to read insights into the plot of The Force Awakens, or you simply want to ruin a possibly phenomenal movie-going experience for yourself. You’ve been warned.
“I fear nothing. All is as the Force wills it.” -Chirrut Îmwe
For the second year in a row, I’ve seen a brand new Star Wars movie in theaters. As incredible as it was in December of 2015, it most definitely still is now. Rogue One has arrived and I’m thrilled to commit my observations to paper for yet another wonderful film in the Star Wars franchise.
It’s difficult to place expectations for a Star Wars stand-alone film when there is no precedent in which to compare it to. The Holiday Special surely doesn’t count, making this the first of it’s kind. Fitting, isn’t it, that the film be called Rogue One? While the film follows familiar themes of hope, trust, and rebellion that have run hot through the veins of every Star Wars film to date, it lacks one thing that truly set it apart from the very beginning: a crawl.
This isn’t news. The absence of a crawl was announced months ago and I wasn’t surprised when the movie simply began. The change of tempo did put me on the edge of my highly uncomfortable Cinemark seat, however. Moments like this are littered throughout the film and often worked to the film’s advantage. In a way, altering or leaving things out of a Star Wars film that we expect are nods in themselves to the traditions we are accustomed to as fans. A cheery example is when K2-SO begins to say “I have a bad feeling about this” before being quickly cut off by Cassian Andor and Jyn Erso. I loved that. So while the crawl not being there certainly felt weird, the movie did not hurt for it. In fact, the opening scenes involving a young Jyn Erso and her family made the film’s companion book Rogue One: Catalyst that much better. Putting faces to names and showing the fall-out between two old friends, Galen Erso and Orson Krennic.  From those opening shots, we’re taken through time and space to various scenes around the galaxy, captioned by location cards each hop along the way to the main plot. This is the start of when the film’s roots in Hollywood military begin to show.
Rogue One hit several classic war film notes like special ops surveilling in the rain, battles on a tropical beach of a pacific-like front, and risky infiltration operations. What I think the movie lacked was the camaraderie of typical war films. Sure, the Rogue One team all fought for the same cause, but the heart between the lot of them just wasn’t there until the very end. Throughout acts I and II, the only believable relationships I saw were between Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe and K2SO and Jyn. Don’t get me wrong, there wasn’t a poor performance to be seen. Still, there was an air of unfamiliarity between the characters in tight quarters that I couldn’t quite reassign to their circumstance. Even in the thick of Act III, there was a moment where Baze refers to Jyn as “little sister” which felt incredibly out of place considering this was their first one on one moment in the entire film.
The stars of the cast were certainly Ben Mendelsohn as Krennic and Alan Tudyk as K2SO. Mendelsohn’s sheer charisma leaps off of the screen from the first scene and doesn’t falter. Tudyk delivered the most unique droid performance since C–3PO’s debut and provided a vast majority of the levity throughout the picture. Both delivered exemplary performances and went beyond the job. I wish I could say as much for Felicity Jones, who I adored in The Theory Of Everything and Breathe In and Diego Luna who’s off-screen personality is a joy to behold. Alas, after a first screening, I don’t feel as much for those two characters as I expected I might. The majority of Jyn’s heart and gusto was shown off in trailers that contained a LOT of unused footage. It’s as if the production went a completely different direction with her levels of spunk and attitude. Remember that line, “I rebel?” I do and it’s sad that her stand-offishness was washed away. I thought Jyn would be the rebel the Rebellion didn’t want, but needed. That role went the way of Saw Gerrera. Still, I think Jones did a fine job and I still enjoy her character even it was flattened. In Luna’s case, I don’t think he was used to his strengths. Andor is a pretty serious guy from start to finish. It seems to me that he would have some real depth of character to become who he is to the cause. I just didn’t believe what Luna was selling half of the time. A second watch let me see a little deeper into the conflict running through his head, but I still think he just short of nailing it.
Despite my frequent dismissal of the controversial reshoots last year, I compare the trailer footage and the final product and see a pretty major reworking of the film’s structure that leads me to only one conclusion: Act I fails due to content overload. In the first third, there are too many planets and too many characters coming in and out of play. By the time the scenes are set for Eadu and Scarif, we’ve met a number of players and seen several planets that hold no bearing on the remainder of the plot. Yet these locations are marked with title cards that generally signify importance. “Commit this to memory” types of cues that don’t make sense for scenes that are just two minutes long. This fast-paced style of filmmaking didn’t help us get to know Bodhi Rook much better and hardly necessitated him at all until he’s needed to land a stolen Imperial ship and transmit to the Alliance fleet from Scarif. This includes the scene with Bor Gullet, a tentacled monster that can read thoughts and leave those it touches mad (but only for a few hours apparently, then you’re fine). Bor Gullet’s owner, the paranoid Saw Gerrera also played nearly no part except to facilitate Jyn’s retrieval of Galen’s message and to lead the plot to Jedha.
While the film and it’s characters suffered from pacing, I feel that Edwards and his casting team did an excellent job from the standpoint of diversity. Rogue One broadened the spectrum of race in Star Wars far beyond that of The Force Awakens. Riz Ahmed, though English, comes from a Pakistani background. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen were both born in China while Diego Luna is of Mexican heritage. The three of them do not speak English as their primary language. If you look at the core Rogue One team, there’s not a caucasian dude among them-Tudyk’s voice not withstanding. One woman, three men of diverse backgrounds, and a droid. Fantastic.
I touched briefly on nostalgia in the opening of this piece, but I want to dive more deeply into details I noticed while watching opening night. Firstly, blue milk! Nothing says Star Wars like a tall glass of Bantha juice. This was an easy one to pick up on from the start as a gesture of good will from Edwards and his team. As a fan of Easter Eggs and visual callbacks, I stayed alert and paid much more attention to this movie’s background than to that of The Force Awakens my first time around. What I noticed was a much richer atmosphere that felt deeper and more elaborate than the desolate depot on Jakku or even the more lively cantina at Takodana.
From the streets Andor traverses to meet his source to Jedha City’s diverse array of inhabitants. Even Yavin 4 had several species—new and old—mixed together and roving about in a believable way. Among them, some familiar faces surprised me. Of course R2D2 and C3PO made their cameo, along with Chopper if you pay close enough attention. A General Syndulla is even called for on the com in the hanger, meaning that at least Hera makes it through the Rebels television series along with the Ghost ship which is parked within the rebel base. On Jedha, we see Cassian and Jyn bump into a pair on the street who address them with immediate disrespect. Sound familiar? Think back to Luke’s first encounter with a bully on Tatooine. Yep. Same guys. Ponda Baba (my favorite cantina patron and inspiration for an impending Bantha Fodder Christmas tale) and a wilder looking Doctor Evazan (Baba’s drinking buddy) are just there, roaming about.  In Saw Gerrera’s complex a withering Twi’lek named Beezer Fortuna is seen sitting at a table in a wonderful panning shot. Beezer shares the surname of Jabba’s left-hand man Bib Fortuna and was created from early artwork for the same.
That’s not all that came from the annals of the Star Wars archives. Briefly after their brush with Baba and Evazan, Jyn talks briefly with Îmwe who is described by Cassian as a Guardians of the Whills, a clear callback to George Lucas’ initial pitch for the Star Wars story as told by immortal beings called Whills. The basis for the Whills turned into the general idea of the Force. Still, with Jedha being as significant to the Jedi and those that followed them as it is described, I feel as if the newly canonized concept of the Whills may reemerge in Episode VIII.  Most interestingly though, was the reintroduction of Darth Vader’s castle. In the early stages of Empire Strikes Back, Ralph McQuarrie produced artwork for Darth Vader’s private residence. A castle first on a snowy planet, then moved to a molten one (this McQuarrie thumbnail particularly resembles what’s on screen) not unlike Mustafar.  This idea was used in several EU games and books, but now that it’s canon, it adds an entire new layer to what we know of Vader. The entire sequence there is one of the most memorable and surprising of the entire film.
While I’m on the topic of Vader, let’s quickly run through a few more major surprises in this movie. The idea of bringing Peter Cushing’s likeness back to the silver screen for the role of Grand Moff Tarkin was brought up over a year ago now and met with nearly unanimous reservation. Personally, I expected a 3D rendering in a hologram type of situation. What I got was a fully realized and impeccably detailed 3D model of an actor that died in 1994.  Turns out the role was played by Guy Henry and then elaborately reconfigured into Cushing’s form. Incredible work, honestly. There was a point in time where we sailed through the uncanny valley where things were almost too real to be real. I feel we’ve officially passed that. If Tarkin doesn’t prove that, perhaps Red or Gold Leader did in Rogue One’s climactic operation on Scarif. If not them, certainly Princess Leia was convincing enough to send a shock through your system as it did mine. These visual tricks by the ILM team were not only clever—they knew they could be clever before they even started the modeling—they were realistic, which is a ridiculously difficult thing to tackle when you’re creating new characters let alone mimicking actual human beings from another time. Bravo team.
A few more quick observations before I finish this up and open up the novelization to compare. There is a scene were Cassian Andor communicates live with Yavin 4 in the middle of a hyperspace run. Is that possible? The “T–15’s are obsolete” joke was a good chuckle for those dorks that caught it. The use of the stolen Imperial Hammerhead ships was really fantastic. The shot of two bright white Star Destroyers slowly falling through a planetary shield gate was a thing of sheer beauty. The set-up for this sequence goes back to an early episode of Rebels season 2. Krennic being killed dead on by the super weapon shortly after was a brilliant piece of poetry. I adored every bit of his downfall.
Rogue One takes a story Star Wars fans are overly familiar with at concept level and opens it up into a rapid-fire journey of new possibilities with the franchise. From start to finish, the film is packed with lovely bits of fan service and a fresh take on the war that rages on in the galaxy. Rogue One gives us new characters to love and more of some that we’ve loved for decades. While much of Rogue One feels like Star Wars, there’s something more to it. Maybe it’s too nuanced to pinpoint after a first watch; but even though it felt new, it felt right too.
EDITORS NOTE: This review was updated on 12/19 to include and amend thoughts after a second viewing.
Leaving just in time, apparently. As Jedha was blown to bits soon thereafter. They deserved that drink at Wuher’s. ↩
Technically, it’s not the first canonical reference to the Whills. A passage from the Journal of the Whills opened the novelization of The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster. This only counts as canon wherein it lines up with the film however. Tricky stuff. ↩