I attended a screening of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” on Monday December 12th representing disneygeek.com. The good folks at Disney/Lucasfilm have asked those reviewing the movie to please not reveal spoilers and detailed story points, an approach they started last year with The Force Awakens. I agree with the idea that everyone should get to enjoy the movie with as many surprises and plot twists intact as possible, so this review should be spoiler free.
Bottom line up front – this is a very good movie and any Star Wars fan, and probably anyone that likes action movies, should see it. I know that there were concerns that folks would not be interested in a movie that did not star a Skywalker or focus on the Jedi but those concerns are totally misplaced. The Star Wars universe is huge. The seven preceding movies and the books that are now considered “canon” lay out key people, places and events that barely touch what can be done in that universe and the standalone films are a start at filling it in.
As the first of what Disney is calling the “standalone” films, Rogue One has the burden of proving that there is interest in these “other” stories and that Lucasfilm/Disney can do justice to them. Rogue One certainly succeeds in the care and investment that went into it. It is as good as any other Star Wars movie in terms of story, character development and production quality. Based on the reaction from the other audience members (I assume mostly bloggers and journalists), it appears it will be popular as well. Character development is an especially tricky proposition for these standalone films as they may include characters that are never seen again. Given that Rogue One is basically an action movie set in the Star Wars universe and the characters’ futures are uncertain, they did a very good job of making them people you care about.
Rogue One also has the challenge that any Star Wars fan knows how it will end. The creative forces involved in making Rogue One did a good job of crafting a story that was both interesting and suspenseful with engaging characters, LOTS of action and a few plot twists along the way. This is also the first Star Wars movie that focused on normal (albeit very talented) humans. Darth Vader makes a couple brief appearances and one of the rebels may have some Force talent, but this is not a Jedi movie. I did not even think about that point until long after the movie was over, so clearly it was not something I was missing.
While this was a standalone story, it fit very well into the Star Wars universe. It had the right “lived in”, gritty look, the right sense of humor and excellent continuity with “A New Hope” (Star Wars Episode 4). There are many many little details that fly by – names you recognize, locations you have seen and a few key characters that have screen time. For the true Star Wars Geek, trying to find all of these references to the other films will be a fun “Easter Egg” hunt and they will probably need to see the movie several times to catch all of them. Keeping continuity for this prequel is especially challenging given that it is set just before the events of “A New Hope” but it is being made 39 years later. The characters that are in both movies are played by actors that are much older, or no longer with us. Modern movie magic was used appropriately and respectfully to meet the challenge. Continuity was also achieved in the movie score – blending original Star Wars music by John Williams and new music by Michael Giacchino (who also composed the music for “Dr Strange”).
Rogue One keeps up the Star Wars (and nearly universal action movie) complaint that the bad guys can not shoot straight and the good guys are generally very lucky, talented or both. Also, there are plot devices the movie makers use to set up situations that are easy to criticize in hind sight (like the classic never go into the basement alone!), but you will drive yourself crazy if start you digging too deep into those in any genre movie. However, it is not all fun and games – good guys do actually die in this movie, the characters have flaws and the Rebellion is shown as a less-than-unified movement. I felt the movie was simultaneously hopeful and sobering, revealing some of the ugliness, and moral uncertainty, of war. Oh, and K-2SO continues the tradition of great scene stealing Star Wars droids.
A few highlights from the production notes provided by Lucasfilm:
- The cinematography is unique to Star Wars films, resulting from director Gareth Edwards’ love of handheld shots and gritty realism – so this movie looks a bit more intimate and organic than the original films. Working with cinematographer Greig Fraser they both actually operated cameras themselves and took a unique approach to lighting – lighting the background rather than the actors, giving the actors and cinematographers more freedom to move about the set. They also used a unique combination of lenses from the 1970’s with modern digital equipment to yield a more classic cinematic feel.
- While Jyn (Felicity Jones) continues the Star Wars tradition of strong female protagonists, she was written and directed to be either male or female – just a person.
- Diego Luna, who plays opposite Felicity Jones as Rebel Intelligence Agent Cassian Andor, may not be familiar to most fans, but he has over 50 acting credits and is an accomplished director who has produced over 20 film and television shows.
- The diverse cast includes two actors famous in their own right in Chinese films – Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen – as the blind monk Chirrut (one of my favorite characters) and his friend Base.
- The special effects team build a giant LED screen that wraps around the cockpits of the various spaceship sets. When filming the pilots in the ships graphics (like laser bolts) were played on the LED display and are reflected in the shiny surfaces inside the cockpit – giving an added level of realism.
- The special effects team also gave a modern twist to the process of “kit bashing” which was used by the ILM team for the original Star Wars films. Those films used miniature physical models for all the starships and they got their busy, realistic look by having parts from many different plastic scale models glued onto them (thus model “kit bashing”). For “Rogue One” the special effects team digitized the interesting bits of kit they found so they could be inserted into digital models of the space ships.
- Costume design trivia – buttons are not allowed in Star Wars, who knew?
Finally, do not expect to see any Bothans (of “many Bothans died to bring us this information” fame) in this movie – they steal the plans for the Death Star II (maybe another future movie?).
Kudos to director Gareth Edwards, writer Gary Whitta with screenplay by John Knoll, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy and the production team led by Kathleen Kennedy. If this is what the “standalone” movies are going to be like, bring them on.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, and Jiang Wen and opens in the U.S. on December 16th.