As a story unfolds, there is a great tendency for the audience to want to know more. Sometimes that desire is about what happened next. Other times, that thirst is to know back story. Occasionally though, what some hunger for is details in-between. They ask for missing chapters, off-screen activities…a few more dots being connected.
These sorts of stories are challenging, since we know where they will end. Is it a given that they will fail? Can they possibly succeed?
ROGUE ONE begins with a family torn apart. A battalion of Imperial Stormtroopers under the leadership of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendehlson) smoke out an Imperial deserter named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Before deserting his post, Erso had been designing The Empire’s most vicious weapon yet – The Death Star. Krennic has come to convince him to return to his post, and he does-so by killing Erso’s wife in front of him. Mercifully, Erso’s daughter, Jyn, manages to escape, and is harboured by a mysterious Clone War veteran named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitakker).
Fifteen years later, the wheels of rebellion begin to whir a little faster across the galaxy. A promising lead comes in the way of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial cargo pilot who ferries a message from Erso to the Rebel Alliance.
When news of this interaction reaches The Rebels, they spring a young adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) from Imperial capture and send her towards Saw and Bodhi alongside an intelligence officer named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). The initial plan is to use Jyn as a lure to assassinate Erso before his work can be completed, but deeper examinations of Bodhi’s smuggled message, and an Imperial attack on the planet cause plans to change.
After folding into their unit a pair of warriors-for-hire named Chirrut and Baze (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen), the platoon flees an Imperial attack on the planet Saw was hiding out on, and returns to the Rebel Base. It’s there that a greater plan is presented:
The message Erso entrusted to Bodhi declared that the blueprints for The Death Star would reveal its fatal flaw. Should The Rebellion be able to steal the plans away from The Empire, they would see how to bring down their mightiest threat. Jyn sees her father’s act as a new hope that must be acted upon as swiftly as possible. The Rebel Alliance around her remains unconvinced.
In defiance of this hesitation to act, Jyn rallies the small unit that brought her to the base. She convinces them that following her father’s suggestion, and stealing Imperial secrets is the best chance at freedom for all, and pile into a stolen Imperial cargo ship – a craft they name Rogue One – and head off to an Imperial stronghold to carry out the act of rebellion and hope.
When one thinks about all of the moments of triumph that dot The Star Wars Saga, it’s easy to forget that we are wandering through a galaxy during its darkest times. Imperialism, civil unrest, fascist dictators wielding unchecked power in the name of increased security. It’s a world where truly terrible possibilities exist, and so many are at the mercy of a power that feels so removed, and yet so omnipresent. That reality has never been explored to the lengths that it has in ROGUE ONE.
This movie goes out of its way to show the true cost of dissent, disobedience, and defiance. It shows just how intimidating the very presence of The Empire can be, and how little it cares for human life should one decide to stand in its way. Be it the way Stormtroopers always seem to be woven into a crowd, or the way whole cities can linger in the shadow of a Star Destroyer, there is no doubt early in ROGUE ONE that The Empire is as terrifying a force as we have ever seen in cinema.
The unfortunate counterpoint that the light that is trying to fight against this darkness doesn’t burn that brightly. Our heroes are all determined, tough, and unwavering in their convictions. Unfortunately, they are also generally skin-deep. We understand precious little about why any of them are rebelling, and what they hope to achieve. Many of them bring exciting skill sets to the battlefield, and can certainly amuse whenever they start to wield their weapon of choice. Whenever the action stops though…
Put the two points together, and you get ROGUE ONE. On the one hand, the first real depiction of just how bleak the galaxy is under Imperial rule, and how ferociously The Rebellion has to fight back against it. On the other hand, very little humanity to latch on to within that Rebellion…very little to weep over when sacrifices are made (and a lot of sacrifices are made!).
Nearly forty years into The Star Wars Saga, audiences have been treated to dizzying heights, and dreadful lows. Chapters have been told that have sparked imaginations…and other chapters have left a terrible taste in many a mouth. ROGUE ONE is somewhere in-between. It does not reach the exciting peaks that the best moments of the series have climbed to, nor does it descend down into the muck that the worst moments of the series have wallowed in. It exists in the space between, which can be both a positive and negative depending on your point-of-view.
It is, however, the new world order.
What was once a holy trinity to film fans is now a fully fledged product line…like Apple or Ford. We are two years into a five-year stretch that will continually deliver “this year’s model”. Some years will bring ingenuitive designs; others will fix things that were not broken. It begs a bigger conversation, but for my money it is the measuring stick with which we must judge these films going forward.
As a STAR WARS film, it works. As an action film, it serves. Held up to the very best of either category, it is found wanting…but then, so much is.