Movie review by Greg Carlson
WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Rogue One.”
Despite claims and/or brand management that position “Rogue One” as a “standalone” story within the franchise, Gareth Edwards’ feature, which takes place just prior to the events depicted in the original “Star Wars,” carries so much Lucasfilm DNA that it is neither fair nor accurate to suggest that the film exists outside of the principal Skywalker narrative. The central story, first dreamed up by ILM veteran/computer genius/visual effects supervisor John Knoll years ago, launches from the text of the famous original opening crawl, in which Rebel spaceships struck “from a hidden base” and spies managed to “steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon.”
“Rogue One” immediately distinguishes itself from past “Star Wars” movies by dispensing with that familiar roll-up text and accompanying John Williams theme, asking viewers to rethink some of the previously essential requirements of a “Star Wars” film (the glowing blue Trade Gothic-style card “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” remains). Considering the active transformation of the property by owner Disney – and the likelihood of seeing a Marvel Cinematic Universe model applied to a steady stream of future “product” – it makes sense that variations to the old formula would be tested.
Arguably darker in both aesthetic and execution than any of its predecessors, “Rogue One” counts as its greatest success the absolutely brilliant retconning of one of Lucas’ most gently ridiculed requests for our suspension of disbelief: it turns out that the exploitable flaw in the design of the Death Star allowing small proton torpedoes to penetrate a two-meter thermal exhaust port leading directly to the reactor system was engineered deliberately as an act of anti-Imperial sabotage by Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the father of protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones).
The Galen/Jyn dynamic, ripe with the parent/child baggage that has driven so much of the primary “Star Wars” story since Vader’s revelation to Luke in “The Empire Strikes Back,” is Applied Characterization 101, but the nature of the father/daughter bond diverges from the “bad dad” history of the Skywalkers in intriguing ways. Jyn’s status as a quasi-orphan places her in the company of Luke, Leia, and Rey, but the manner in which her feelings of abandonment, skepticism, and distrust indicate unwillingness to side with the Rebels – who plan to assassinate Galen – unlocks the film’s appealing critique of the Alliance’s most unsavory tactics.
Later, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, who looks dashing in his Han Solo-on-Hoth-inspired parka), will verbalize with weary resignation that terrible things have been done on behalf of the Rebellion. He refers to spies, assassins, and saboteurs, including himself in that number. The acknowledgement is the most sustained, most nuanced move away from the simplified, morally unambiguous, good-versus-evil signature yet offered, and a welcome shading of the wars part of “Star Wars.” The full nature of Saw Gerrera’s (Forest Whitaker) extremism, even terrorism, as a Rebel cell leader is murkier, but the theme is established: “Rogue One” accepts a more mature vision of the toll of sustained armed conflict and life during wartime.
But beyond that, how is the film situated within the liminal space between the prequels and the original trilogy?
The expansive breadth of the “Star Wars” universe has invited arguments concerning canon since at least as early as November 17, 1978 – the CBS airdate of the “Star Wars Holiday Special.” Among other things, the lone television broadcast explicated the spiritual tradition known as Life Day, celebrated by red-robed Wookiees on their home planet Kashyyyk. Viewers learned about Chewbacca’s nuclear family, and also discovered that “Star Wars” could make room for variety show-inspired performances by Art Carney, Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, and others. The legacy of that endeavor, which some disavow and others relish, is the quintessential example of the many-things-to-many-people elasticity of “Star Wars.”
In Laurent Bouzereau’s “Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey” and elsewhere, J. J. Abrams subtly avoided direct denunciation of the prequels, emphasizing instead the various ways in which Episode VII would feel like an “authentic” “Star Wars” movie. The use of photochemical process instead of digital capture for principal photography and the valuing of practical effects over CGI are two examples reinforcing the position that certain “Star Wars” films are more equal than others. Some older fans in particular have been paying close attention to how Lucasfilm, under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, will or won’t honor the full continuity of “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones,” “Revenge of the Sith,” and the accompanying dubiousness of midi-chlorians and Jar Jar Binks.
In “Rogue One,” Easter eggs and callbacks to the original trilogy (from blue milk to a superfluous encounter with Ponda Baba/Walrus Man and his odious companion Doctor Evazan) outnumber the movie’s more tentative links to Episodes I-III, but the filmmakers offer at least a strong handshake to the prequels if not a warm embrace. For the anti-prequel purist, the appearance of Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa will be less acceptable than the digital mask of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, as it fortifies a bridge that might better be burned than crossed. And uncanny valley problematics aside, the Tarkin “performance” raises serious questions about the management and control of deceased actors’ likenesses (see the December 16, 2016 “Variety” report by Kristopher Tapley and Peter DeBruge for more).
“Rogue One” recalls another of the most frustrating and unwelcome saga additions cooked up by Lucas – the revelation that C-3PO’s memory had been wiped, conveniently erasing the droid’s conscious recollections of being the property of the future Darth Vader. That particular issue is mirrored in the handling of K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). As vibrant, funny, and alive as his more famous forebears C-3PO and R2-D2, the gray-plated wiseacre toiled in Imperial security prior to reprogramming by owner Andor. K-2SO, who provides the most consistent and reliable humor and tension relief in “Rogue One,” is an instant favorite thanks to Tudyk’s performance and the droid’s self-sacrificing heroics.
In a sharp essay, Mike Delaney addresses the conundrum of sentience, free will, and slavery related to the use of droids in “Star Wars,” tackling the knotty philosophical ethics swirling around choice versus the illusion of choice. While it is true that Owen Lars indicated a desire to have the memory functions of C-3PO and R2-D2 obliterated in the first “Star Wars,” legions of emotionally invested viewers rejected the notion that the beloved mechanical friends were anything less than conscious, self-aware, and capable of making decisions not tethered to coding.
Until the alterations of the prequels, fans could take comfort in the idea that C-3PO eluded erasure, a terrible fate not visited upon companion R2-D2, whose Wookiepeedia entry opens with the assertion that the droid’s avoidance of reprogramming and any major memory wipe has resulted “in an adventurous and independent attitude.” C-3PO and K-2SO may share permanent amnesia, but the latter, like the other members of Jyn’s do-or-die team, is a rogue on more than one level. Along with Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), the droid served the Empire, but we have no evidence that K-2SO would have, or could have, defected like a human. Isn’t that possibility more interesting?
Some of the same aficionados who decried the narrative parallels between “Star Wars” and “The Force Awakens” have praised “Rogue One” for its break from a climax focused on the destruction of a space station and the introduction of a set of largely “fresh” characters. While those two claims are not incorrect, “Rogue One” is nearly as dependent on elemental “Star Wars” tropes as Episode VII. Besides the previously noted associations, “Rogue One” contains the familiar sight of moisture vaporators, holographic messages, Rebels disguised as Imperials, sentinels outside the Massassi Temple, Mon Calamari admirals directing a major assault, old clearance codes that somehow check out, familiar Rebel pilots reciting call signs, the destruction of entire planets by the Death Star, and an obligatory variation on “I have a bad feeling about this.”
It also has one other thing: a glowing crimson energy blade ignited by the most famous Dark Lord of the Sith in the known universe.
Darth Vader’s role in “Rogue One” may be more limited than in his screen debut, but his presence is every bit as important. Vader haunts the world of “Star Wars” like the Flying Dutchman haunts the Seven Seas, and witnessing his power – freed from the albatross of Hayden Christensen’s flimsy interpretation of Anakin Skywalker – restores some of the faith that has been disturbingly lacking. James Earl Jones’ basso profundo might not be as commanding as it was the first time we heard it (forty years will do that), but “Rogue One” steps away from Vader as iconic corporate symbol, restoring him as a terrifying threat, tormented and broken, twisted and evil.