If it was hard to believe this time last year that a new Star Wars was in theaters and it was genuinely great, it was that much harder to believe that the next theatrical Star Wars release that Disney had on deck, a direct prequel to A New Hope of all things, would live up to the new high standard set by The Force Awakens, especially at the tail end of a 2016 full of setbacks, hopelessness, disappointment and disillusionment.
Yes, another prequel. If any three words strike absolute fear into the hearts of all self respecting nerds, even more so than “Joel Schumacher Batman” or “Big Bang Theory” it’s “Star Wars Prequel”. But if anybody could pull it off it was Disney. Say what you want about the recent mini backlash regarding Disney’s Marvel output having an overly homogenized “house style” that by and large frowns upon auteurism and individuality in their direction, cinematography and even soundtracks, at the end of the day Disney owned Marvel hasn’t produced a bad movie yet, and I’m happy to say they haven’t produced a bad Star Wars movie either. Rogue One not only exceeds all lofty fan expectations but shatters them, creating an emotionally captivating stand alone story that also functions beautifully at filling in the blanks of one of the most crucial plot points in the Star Wars saga as a whole.
Above all its other triumphs, and there are many, Rogue One excels at nailing the fundamental understanding of what initially made Star Wars great in all of the tactile, gritty, “used future” ways that the Lucas helmed prequel trilogy failed. Rogue One puts us on the ground to witness the real impact of the Empire’s tyranny in ways never before seen outside of the now abolished Extended Universe, and it gives this story and everything that follows a newfound sense of urgency and scale.
That urgency plays into the way in which Monsters/Godzilla director Gareth Edwards introduces each member of his rag tag gang of freedom fighters. Mostly previously unknown quantities within the franchise (though a few surprise ringers that I won’t spoil here do make appearances), each are immediately endearing and engaging, with the plight of the Erso family rendered tragic and relatable with deft efficiency that puts this year’s other big action ensemble to shame.
Felicity Jones’ work as Jyn Erso takes a character that could just be a relatively rote and one note plot device and makes me long for more of her tumultuous upbringing under the equally excellent (though somewhat under-utilized) Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera. Each member of the ensemble is uniformly great, with standouts being Ip Man star Donnie Yen’s blind master Chirrut Imwe and sardonic Imperial Droid defector K-2SO, brought to blackly comic life by Firefly’s Allan Tudyk. And of course as a dyed in the wool Hannibal fanboy I have to mention Mads Mikkelsen being his usual, awesome self in the brief but crucial role of Jyn’s father Galen, the reluctant architect of the Death Star.
Speaking of that Death Star, yes, the overarching story told in Rogue One is no secret, but as with most prequels, especially those as direct as this one, the devil (or perhaps the Sith Lord) is in the details. Those details are really what add up to make Rogue One essential viewing where most “fill in the blanks” type of material (like the vast majority of the old EU stuff that Disney got rid of) within storied franchises are anything but.
Edwards’ plotting is just as effortless as his character work, Michael Giacchino’s score is reverent of John Williams’ iconic themes without being overtly cloying, corny or lazy in its appropriation. The original trilogy’s grimy aesthetic is recreated flawlessly, so much so that small cameo appearances from iconic background characters feel completely organic and totally not forced (baby Greedo in Episode One this ain’t). Effects are of course seamless across the board without calling too much attention to themselves in that fake, Lucas prequel-y way, and then there’s Vader.
Yup, Anakin’s in the house and he’s astounding, utilized to perfection as a brooding, foreboding presence lurking just outside of the frame of the Empire’s sinister machinations, watching the watchmen, tormenting the tormentors, almost gaining back all the badass cred he lost whining about sand and Obi Wan and Padme and everything else in Episodes One through Three. Without spoiling anything, Vader’s in Rogue One just enough. Any less and it would be a tease, any more and it would be overkill. Another perfect piece of Rogue One’s extremely well done puzzle.
It all really shouldn’t work, but it does, and it does so well. Each aspect just fits and locks together to create an incredible whole that almost single-handedly pleads the case for these stand alone Star Wars interquels that many scoffed at when Disney first announced them. If the pitch perfect casting wasn’t enough to have you excited about the upcoming Han and Lando buddy origin film, seeing the masterful execution of Rogue One ought to do it for you. But first, Episode Eight continues the adventures of Finn, Rey and all the other characters we fell in love with a year ago. Disney’s Marvel winning streak has continued right into a galaxy far, far away, and long may it continue. They are one with the force, and the force is with them.