MPAA Rating: PG-13
Reel Rating: (4 out of 5 reels)
When the Star Wars anthology series was first announced, most fans including myself greeted the news with great enthusiasm. After all, how could more Star Wars be bad? However, after seeing the experiencing the burnout from constant additions to other franchises like DC, Harry Potter, and the three-film-a-year MCU, I had a bad feeling about this. Fortunately, Disney executive Kathleen Kennedy avoided this problem by creating a separate franchise that expanded the universe without interfering with the main story. Even as a standalone alone film, Rogue One holds up well on its own, albeit with a little bumps in the beginning. It’s an entirely different kind of addition, and that’s a good thing.
Rogue One answers one main question: “How did the rebels steal the Death Star plans?” Like many inventions constructed by dictatorships, it turns out that the battle station’s chief engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was involuntarily conscripted, so he secretly built a fatal flaw into its architectural makeup. The rebel alliance enlists his daughter Jyn (Oscar nominee Felicity Jones) and a rag tag group of volunteers to locate the plans to exploit this weakness before it is too late. This motley cue harkens back to great WWII classics like The Longest Day, The Great Escape, and Kelly’s Heroes where a small band of resourceful characters could win the day against insurmountable odds, helped by conflicting personalities and witty banter.
The most important thing to announce right from the start is that internet theorists can relax. Rogue One adds or subtracts nothing essential from the narrative of the established series. Darth Sidious is nowhere to be found, Rey’s parents don’t show up, and the Sarlacc pit isn’t a veiled symbol of US foreign policy. It’s an entirely self-contained story that plays with familiar concepts and characters but never approaches sacred material. Like the Gospel of James, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, or other early apocryphal literature, it elaborates on details left out of Sacred Scripture. Unlike later heretical works that sought to change and undermine orthodox teaching, these authors were only interested in imagining things based on historical tradition. The Gospel of John, after all, states, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (Jn 21:25). While not canonical, many of these early ideas were likely accurate. (Which, unfortunately for Paul, means he probably really was bald.)
While Rogue One avoids narrative problems, it does experiment significantly with tone. The section is a dramatic character study, mostly focusing on the relationship between Jyn and her Rebel escort Cassian (Diego Luna). Although helpful in finding her father, he has also shown that he is more than willing to kill foe and friend alike to complete his mission and may be hiding something. Occasionally, the film ventures into questions that are asked by gritty war films. If both sides are willing to kill, how does one know who is right? Is any action permissible if it helps “the cause”? This section, while not terrible, is rather slow and a little sappy.
The final act, however, takes off at lightning speed and never lets up. Jyn and Cassian drop their philosophical musings and focus on the task at hand, leading to some of the most spectacular space fights that have ever been filmed. It reminds the audience why Star Wars seemed so fresh in the first place. In the late 70s, when everything felt so cloudy, George Lucas gave us a moral universe of literal light and dark. The good guys were brave and true, the bad guys totally evil, and right always won the day. This is story that feeds on universal truths and archetypal patterns: spiritual warfare not physical combat.
Rogue One is a promising beginning to an anthology that has endless potential; the next installment, featuring a young Han Solo, begins filming in February. Yet to the true fans, this extended Universe had always existed not only in countless unofficial books, comics, and parodies but in cardboard cut-out costumes in our backyard. As a parent of a three year old son, I am incredibly grateful that we will be able to go to the theater together and see a new Star Wars movie, just as I did with my father. Best of all, it will not be a rare occurrence but an annual tradition.