Review: ‘Rogue One’ Might Feel Like A Slap In The Face, But It Sure Is Entertaining
(With a spoilers sealed section).
This review includes a sealed section at the end that contains MAJOR SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen Rogue One, do NOT scroll all the way down really fast like an idiot. You have been warned.
I’ve just come back from Rogue One, the new standalone prequel to A New Hope, and my heart is in tatters. Some of the duller online pundits have suggested that this is the first film in the series actually about war, conveniently forgetting that they’re all set during wartime, and are literally called STAR WARS. But I will concede this much: this is a proper bloody war movie. And with war, comes tragedy.
Rogue One is set immediately before A New Hope, a film we’re all so familiar with by now that it’s practically part of our DNA. Thankfully, Rogue One manages to deftly dance around this nostalgia part of our brains without accidentally stepping on anything too precious. And yes, we know how it ends — the rebels end up with the plans to the Death Star. But how do they actually get those plans? That’s what this grimy, zippy, and often harrowing rollercoaster of a film explores.
You’ve surely all seen the posters or trailers by now, which depict stormtroopers rushing at an array of new characters. And my god, what characters they are. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a criminal scooped up by the Rebellion — a group who, after decades of loss, are effectively hollowed out. Her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been involved in the construction of a certain superweapon under the hands of fascinating Imperial overseer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), and the rebels need her help getting to him. Jyn then bands together with a superb motley crew including Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, and Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, a droid. A wonderful, perfect droid who I love. So much.
But the characters are further buoyed by the fact this feels like a lived-in Star Wars universe, utterly unlike the prequels. Every street, every ship interior, every briefing room feels real. Rogue One has a sense of place rarely seen in the Star Wars films, and while it’s a grim, unflinching war movie about a grim mission against an unbeatable foe, it still feels like Star Wars.
The pace of Rogue One is perfect, and the lovingly crafted nods to A New Hope — right down to filters used on the binoculars — were a herculean feat. This film was made by people who care about the franchise and it shows. Rogue One is an explosive, brilliant entry into the Star Wars universe. It’s a bracing slap in the face, but a bloody fun one to watch.
But it does get a wee bit… dark.
So having established that the film is, in fact, great (which it is), let me walk you tenderly through some super spoiler-y stuff. This is for those who’ve seen the film and are, like me, processing it. And it will give away basically the entire movie, so consider yourself duly warned.
I will not be responsible for any heartbreak if you’ve accidentally scrolled too far.
Good. Here we go.
My first response upon seeing character after character get brutally killed off in Rogue One was… screw this. If I hadn’t been seated in a packed cinema, surrounded by friends, some of whom work at Disney, I’d have chucked a mad wobbly, flipped my torso-sized Coke and stormed out. Why? Because Rogue One did such an adept job at getting me to love this crew of misfits that seeing them offed made me mad. First at those who killed them, then at the filmmakers for torturing me like this. Wasn’t The Force Awakens enough? HAVEN’T I BEEN THROUGH ENOUGH? THIS YEAR HAS BEEN THE WORST! WHY MAKE IT WORSE? GAHHHH!
And there goes the Coke.
Star Wars has conditioned me to look at a ragtag crew of characters who grow to love one another, and assume they’re pretty much going to be okay. Maybe not all of them, but some. Hell, even one of them! But the characters in Rogue One who actually get to reap the benefits of this epic, bloody heist are in another film entirely, and as such are somewhat abstract.
Sure, we see Leia head off with the plans, but we don’t get the payoff. It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen A New Hope hundreds of times; in this moment, having just finished Rogue One, I’m divorced from it. Someone else is running off with the emotional cheque this film just pounded into the dirt with the demise of each and every one of my new BFFs. I mean, goddamn it, guys. I loved that robot. And the Rebellion in this film aren’t (for the most part) good people deserving of such sacrifices — they’re polluted. They’re arseholes.
After wrestling down something akin to genuine grief, I came to a realisation: it is at least in service of something greater. Rogue One shows us a universe dehumanised by decades of Imperial oppression. Humans are no longer behaving… well, human. The universe has lost its way. Even the Rebellion. Hell, Captain Cassian Andor, in the opening moments of Rogue One, guns down an injured rebel just so he can make an uncomplicated escape! Then, along comes the daughter of the guy forced to build the Death Star — a punctuation mark at the end of humanity’s long, trailing final sentence.
Jyn Erso is roused from her inhuman funk by the words of her father, a man determined to undo the Empire, and she rallies the few remaining good people she can find. She reminds them what humanity is capable of, she wakes up something inside them, and uses them (and their sacrifice) not just to get the Death Star plans to the rebels, but to remind the Rebellion what they’re fighting for: people.
Rogue One is a story about a group of people who, improbably, impossibly, dash themselves against the rocks of fate to prove that it is still possible, even under the thumb of horrific, unstoppable oppression, to stand for good. Jyn and her crew know they can’t survive. But they start a fire that wakes the rebels up, and turn them from terrorists into the rebels we grew up with. It’s a fire we see ignited throughout the fleet, who fight with renewed vigour; we see it in each soldier passing the plans for this technological terror up the corridor, swarming like ants, passing on the message, spurred on even in the face of death by that most dangerous foe of oppression: hope.
It’s one thing to die. But it’s another thing entirely to die well. And even Darth goddamned Vader can’t counter that.
Paul Verhoeven is host of Steam Punks on ABC3, and host of the weekly gaming podcast 28 Plays Later. He tweets from @PaulVerhoeven.