‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ seemed suspicious on paper, like any film saddled with the dreaded “spinoff” label. For a while all the odds looked stacked against it too — reshoots, script changes and a director in Gareth Edwards whose last blockbuster “Godzilla” had visual flair but no humanity, not to mention the fact that the film would be asking us to learn a dozen new characters with strange names, none of which were Skywalker or Solo. And of course as with any franchise there’s that ever-present knowledge that, in some ways, this is another line-item on a corporate profit sheet.
As it turns out, those should-be liabilities were only assets in the end. “Rogue One” is a bold and stirring adventure film that will have both fans and casual observers spellbound. It is easily the most exciting blockbuster in recent memory this side of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and that includes “The Force Awakens,” which now looks lazy and bloated with sentimentality and fan service in comparison to the subversive ingenuity of “Rogue One.”
How refreshing it is to have a truly contained film that doesn’t have any objective beyond the story at hand. There is nothing to advance, nothing to tease, no “maybe we’ll find answers in the next movie in 2 years” here. It is just allowed to be what it is, which is an intense and visually engrossing powder keg of a film.
It’s a simple idea, really: Who are the rebels who stole the plans for the Death Star? That pivotal action kicked off the original “Star Wars” and it’s pretty inherently dramatic.
Loosely, “Rogue One” is rooted around the plight of Jyn Erso, whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist who once worked for the Empire. He gets drawn back in by the ambitious Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to help finish the Death Star, leaving Jyn, played by Beau and Dolly Gadsdon as a young girl, and Felicity Jones as an adult, to survive on her own. Jyn is sort of raised by a rebel extremist in Saw Gerrera (an over-the-top Forest Whitaker), but much of this is left both unseen and unexplained.
What we know is she’s a child of war, and an almost apathetic one at that, until she’s rescued from imprisonment by a group of rebels hoping her familial connections might help with their efforts against the Empire. There she’s put together with a deadpan droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk) and a spy, Cassian (Diego Luna), who’s given a secret mission within the mission. Eventually they meet the blind Jedi Chirrut (Donnie Yen), his decidedly more practical companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and the conflicted pilot (Riz Ahmed), forming a motley crew of unlikely heroes.
The real feat of “Rogue One” is that Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy create a world with actual stakes, making the audience feel for and worry about characters we’ve just met. It doesn’t rely on decades old nostalgia, although there is a bit of that too in mostly unobtrusive ways. There’s also some CGI that veers pretty dramatically into the uncanny valley. But like the somewhat slow and disjointed beginning, eventually it all just washes over you, especially as the riveting action kicks in, taking you from the trenches to space and back again. The only downside of the thrilling battles in the third act is that it means less time with the leads — especially Jones, Luna and Mendelsohn, whose performances make up for the script’s occasional deficiencies.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is one of the best Star Wars films ever made. Only time will tell if it will surpass “The Empire Strikes Back” as the franchise standard bearer. There’s a compelling case to be made.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action.” Running time: 133 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
“Star Wars” gets a bad rap for being a boy’s club, and sometimes rightfully so, but the truth of the matter is that women have always been an integral part of the George Lucas-created world and the franchise’s fan base. On screen, the names Leia, Amidala and Rey are as instantly recognizable and known as any others — and none were ever just playing “the girl.”
With this now 39-year-old tradition in mind, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” introduces a new heroine to the ranks — Jyn Erso, an abandoned child of war who must decide what she believes in as the world devolves into chaos. Director Gareth Edwards talked about developing the character and settling on the idea that “Jyn isn’t just a woman — she’s a person.”
“I wanted to make a character that I would want to be. Not to fancy her or want to marry her, but want to be her. It was just a cool person,” Edwards continued.
He and the team at Lucasfilm settled on English actress Felicity Jones, 33, to play the part. Already an Oscar nominee for her portrayal of Jane Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” Jones had been making a name for herself in smaller projects, like the indie romance “Like Crazy.” But recently, she’s been dipping her toes in larger-scale films, like “The Amazing Spider-Man” sequel.
Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy was drawn to Jones’s ability to bring a sense of gravitas and importance to everything, while also exhibiting a “real whimsy.”
“For years I’ve been constantly looking for these kinds of parts and these kinds of films and the opportunity to make it on such a large scale was pretty hard to turn down,” said Jones, who also appears in the upcoming fantasy tale “A Monster Calls” and opposite Tom Hanks in “Inferno.”
Jyn, unlike the other classic “Star Wars” heroines, gets the full weight of an origin story in “Rogue One,” out Friday. Her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is a scientist who once worked for the Empire, left that life behind and, at the beginning of the film, gets drawn back in to help finish the Death Star — leaving his young daughter behind to fend for herself.
As an adult, she’s forced to confront her past in various ways, especially when she becomes entangled with the rebel alliance.
“I like her determination,” Jones said. “She doesn’t let go of something until she succeeds. She is very, very focused and tenacious in the face of when she’s set a task.”
Jones trained intensively to portray this hardened fighter working closely with stunt teams who she said spent hours humoring her need to practice constantly. Fittingly, her costume is not a fussy dress or a metal bikini, but rather one of a warrior.
“Jyn is someone who’s had to survive on her own and at any moment she’s going to have to be running away from someone, she’s going to have to defend herself physically,” Jones said. “She has really built a little shell around herself, so her costume had to reflect the needs of her life and unfortunately she’s not going to that many parties.” (AP)
And while Jyn is not a princess or a queen or, well, whatever Rey turns out to be, Jones does think she shares similarities with those who came before her.
“They are quite forthright but they are instinctive and they kind of — they don’t mess around,” Jones said. “She’s very true to the other ‘Star Wars’ heroines in that way.”
By Lindsey Bahr