Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Tony Gilroy & Chris Weitz
Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie, both because it’s a smart, tightly written film and because, objectively speaking, the original Star Wars movies are not. I love the original trilogy for the same reasons you do – because I grew up with it, because the movies are fun and exciting, because of the music, because of the spaceships and lightsabers and weird aliens and goofy robots and epic battles, and because shared cultural experiences are what pop culture is there for. But if you strip that all away and evaluate them based on the quality of their scripts, the original Star Wars movies just don’t hold up.
That’s why I was more excited for Rogue One than I was for The Force Awakens. The director, Gareth Edwards, previously directed Monsters, one of my favorite movies and a case study in brainy, relatable science fiction. Writer Tony Gilroy is the scribe behind the Bourne trilogy and Michael Clayton, my dark horse pick for Best Picture in 2007. Cinematographer Greig Fraser also worked on Killing Them Softly, a profoundly boring gangster movie that was nonetheless beautifully shot. This amounts to everything I could have hoped for from Hollywood: A big-budget Star Wars movie helmed by people who make the kind of highfalutin’ indie films I love.
For more than 40 years, the Rebel Alliance has appeared to be little more than a motley handful of nameless X-Wing pilots, mechanics and badly-dressed soldiers stumbling around in the background while Luke, Leia and Han get shit done. Rogue One finally gives a face to the Rebellion with its colorful, morally ambiguous cast of spies and mercenaries. Felicity Jones is wily and angry as Jyn Erso, a ne’er do well busted out of an Imperial chain-gang by the Rebellion to help track down her father, one of the chief engineers of the Death Star. She’s accompanied in her quest by cold-blooded Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2S0, a passive-aggressive droid who has many of the movie’s funniest lines. (K-2S0 is voiced by Alan Tudyk, who previously lent his voice to the titular robot in I, Robot - typecasting is real, people.)
Watching this squabbling trio explore the odds and ends of the Star Wars universe is a treat, even before the violence kicks in. Early on, they take a trip to an Imperial-occupied city on a desert world. In the shadow of a massive Star Destroyer floating overhead, the narrow, dusty streets teem with merchants and beggars, patrolled by anxious Stormtroopers trying to root out the insurgents who’ve been attacking their supply lines. If you squint, it doesn’t look that different from the news images we’ve seen out of the Middle East for the past decade or so – and it’s in moments like these that Star Wars felt more real and relatable to me than ever before. These touches are important reminders that down on the ground where ordinary folks live, this epic struggle between technology, religion and ideology looks and feels very familiar. Stuff like this makes the Star Wars universe and the things that go on there that much more impactful.
It’s not a perfect movie. The large cast is well acted but underwritten – while the protagonists are all interesting, we don’t get enough time with any one of them to really get to know them. But I can forgive that, because the script is still strong, and one of its greatest strengths is that it keeps a brisk pace and doesn’t go on too long – something so many blockbuster action films are guilty of. God willing there’ll be a three-hour directors cut that plays more like The Wild Bunch in space. (There's also been a lot of criticism of the CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing's Moff Tarkin, but having recently watched this nightmarish thing I really didn't find it that off-putting.)
If you haven’t seen Rogue One by now, watch this kickass fanmade trailer and quit reading. If you have seen it, watch the trailer anyway and then join me below in the spoiler zone to talk about the ending.
One of my big complaints about the Star Wars franchise is that it spends an awful lot of time telling the same story over and over again: A New Hope ends with a daring, last-ditch Rebel mission to blow up the Death Star. Return of the Jedi ends with a daring, last-ditch Rebel mission to blow up another Death Star. The Force Awakens ends with a daring, last-ditch Rebel mission to blow up another Death Star. That’s part of why The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite of the originals – without a Death Star to blow up, the characters have to find other ways to amuse themselves in the third act.
Rogue One is a breath of fresh air for the same reason. Sure, there’s still a climactic battle in space and on the ground, but in this one, every single character dies. It takes some serious balls for a franchise blockbuster to kill off its entire cast at the end, and I have to applaud Tony Gilroy for not foisting a chintzy happy ending on us where Jyn and Cassian narrowly escape, fall in love and get awkwardly Photoshopped into the background in the next re-release of A New Hope.
The fact that these meaningful, likable characters die in battle with ordinary Stormtroopers – who before now were famous in pop culture for their comical inability to hit the good guys – puts the War back in Star Wars. In the final moments of the film, after the principal cast has been wiped out, a succession of nameless Rebel soldiers rush the captured Death Star plans to Princess Leia’s ship, with Darth Vader in murderous pursuit. Even though we know the outcome, it’s still a chilling, nailbiting moment. The Death Star plans aren’t just a convenient MacGuffin anymore; the Rebel soldiers aren’t just faceless cannon fodder. The Empire has killed a lot of people we care about. Now it’s personal.
Despite my gripes about the original Star Wars trilogy, I still love the movies dearly because of the epic saga and vibrant universe they exist in. Rogue One has many bright spots, but the brightest one for me is that it takes the things I love about Star Wars and makes them better.