The Last Jedi is a Messy Masterpiece
Disney officially and emphatically places yet another property into the burgeoning “cinematic universe” market with Rogue One, a spinoff outside the main Star Wars “episodic” chronology. While it’s not the first film in the saga to do this (the limited-release, theatrical “Clone Wars” pilot from 2008 comes to mind, as does a certain made-for-tv Holiday Special), Rogue One is by far the largest and most expensive Star Wars project to not have “Episode” in the title. It’s also already the most successful, proving beyond certainty that Disney’s plans for the franchise extend well beyond Episode IX.
The movie, which begins not long before Episode IV, centers around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a convicted prisoner of the Empire who is sought out by the Galactic Rebellion when they come to realize that her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, in the middle of a welcome career resurgence) is responsible for creating an Imperial super-weapon. The name of said weapon, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you. Jyn, believing her father still has good in him, agrees to help the Rebels track Galen down and rescue him, and his intel, from the Empire. However, Jyn distrusts the Rebellion, and for good reason: her partner, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has orders to kill Galen on sight. Ultimately, the two, along with a ragtag group that includes sarcastic android K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), blind force-user Îmwe (Donnie Yen), defected Imperial Pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and machine-gun-toting fighter Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen)(as you can see, I stuck around for the credits), must band together to find Galen and stop the weapon before it’s developed. How successful they are, and what they find along the way, should be common knowledge among the Star Wars faithful, but I’ll avoid spoilers anyway.
Rogue One is certainly more comfortable with shades of grey than the series, especially the original trilogy, is known to be. The Rebellion is depicted as a complex insurgency force, complete with it’s own often-shady morals (not to mention the occasional red tape). Cassian is introduced shooting a man in the back to protect himself, a surprise in a franchise that infamously considered Han’s shooting of Greedo to be a scene that needed editing. The Rebels have also been known, as rebels often do, to associate with dangerous extremists, among them Erso family friend (and Clone Wars tv-series holdover) Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker; a paranoid, torture-happy zealot who has mechanized limbs and makes frequent use of a respirator. The similarity he bears to another Star Wars character should not go unnoticed.
And, speak of the devil, Vader (James Earl Jones, of course) does make an appearance, which I doubt is a spoiler at this point. His presence is as unnecessary as Thanos’s in Guardians of the Galaxy, but not as unwelcome, surprisingly. His purpose is mainly to lend vulnerability to the real villain, Imperial Weapons Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn); a man we should hate, but often feel bad for. He is, after all, presiding over what has to be the Empire’s most egregious federal spending project, all while facing constant bullying from Governor Tarkin (a late Peter Cushing impressively, if unsettlingly, resurrected with CGI). If he doesn’t follow through on his abominable plans, his life will likely be on the line.
Rogue One is possibly the most grandiose Star Wars fan film ever made, and that’s not always a good thing. While it wants to commit itself to a grittier and murkier universe, it’s not always sure how exactly to accomplish that, or at least how to accomplish that and still have fun. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Felicity Jones, whose idea of playing Jyn as a cocksure, angry rebel is to essentially widen her eyes and frown a lot. Meanwhile, as Krennic, Ben Mendelsohn jumps between intimidation and smarminess, seldom with ease. K-2SO is a fun character, he frequently gets the best lines in the movie, but the rest of the crew is only barely fleshed-out. I didn’t feel as attached to them as I did Rey and Finn. It’s fairly long, with most of the first two acts feeling like a dreary drag, occasionally punctuated by shooting. It also doesn’t help that the vast majority of Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s dialogue essentially boils down to grave, foreboding one-liners.
So what does Rogue One do right? Well, quite a bit, actually. The final battle on the Imperial planet Scarif is incredibly long, and somewhat awkwardly paced, but is by far the highlight. It gives the film a chance to effectively weaponize original trilogy nostalgia, all set among a beautiful tropical locale. The Pacific Theatre of World War II, probably the only setting of that war not explored in the original trilogy, is recalled. This is probably the best visually-directed Star Wars movie since Empire. It also features a refreshingly diverse cast of women, racial minorities, and alien muppets; all fighting against an oppressive force of old, white men, which should feel somewhat relatable in a time like this.
Rogue One provides enough of an exhilarating ride, particularly in the last half-hour, to satisfy the Star Wars faithful, and is self-contained enough to introduce newcomers to the series, even if some of the shots linger on familiar images of AT-ATs and Tie-Fighters a bit longer than necessary, rather than inventing any new concepts or ships or weapons. If nothing else, it certainly makes Darth Vader scarier than he’s been in a long time.