‘Rogue One’ rebels just enough to show that Star Wars still has some spark

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta)

Disney’s first entry in their Star Wars standalone spinoffs doesn’t quite live up to the overtly rebellious nature of its otherwise apt title, but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story showcases the first spark of life the series has seen in quite some time, struggling to break free from the rusty chains of an oppressive franchise, with enough verve and tenacity that the effort can’t help but endear this wannabe maverick to those who see the vast potential for storytelling in this magical universe. The result is easily the most spirited and affecting Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi, and a glimmer of new hope for actual interesting things to come.

Taking place in the canonical time period between Episodes III and IVRogue One weaves the story of a band of galaxy misfits looking for purpose in their own lives with the larger machinations of both an evil Empire in the process of tightening its grip, and a fractured Alliance, themselves not above the cold and calculating decisions that often must be made in support of the cause. Yes, that description could likely be applied to several entries in the series, including the vastly inferior The Force Awakens, but what sets this narrative apart is the relative gray area that its morality and concept of victory operate in. The traditional clear-cut fairy tale heroes are muted here (though the villains remain as cartoonishly vile as ever), taking a cue from the “Han shot first” mentality and injecting some pragmatic realism into the portrayal of people fighting for their lives. This brings a grounding human element to the fantasy-filled alien worlds, a foundation for sympathy that the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han were built upon, but that robotic Jedi and a hammy ex-Storm Trooper could never muster.

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The fallacy that darker equates to better is not misunderstood, either; this is not gritty for gritty’s sake. The acts performed make sense for those involved, even when we may recognize better options, and the consequences are dealt with both outside and in. Though there are a few on-the-nose speeches that paint too clear a picture as to what is right and what is wrong, for the most part these warriors are lost in the chaos of a war that stretches into the far reaches of space. Judgment is often reserved for the audience instead of broadcast through heroic musical themes or somber melodies, facilitating at least the illusion of choice for whether these people are deserving of any affection, and when the connection is made, the cement binding it is that much stronger.

Though characters’ inner conflicts aren’t given nearly enough time to properly breathe in a plot that jumps from unpronounceable planet to slightly more pronounceable planet, the actors do an admirable job of making the most of their limited lines of non-expositionary dialogue, often conveying more about themselves through their wearied expressions than the words allow. Both Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are the standouts here, each mastering the art of suppressing pain without coming off as dour or melodramatic, and their personal struggles provide a stable center to a sometimes loping plot. Rarely has the emotional fate of characters in recent Star Wars movies eclipsed whatever cosmic physical peril the writers cook up, and while Rogue One still feels notably under-developed on that front, there is a refreshing stirring of significance with what is at stake for these two battered and bruised rebels, the sort not felt since Luke last crossed lightsabers with his father.

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Restraint with the action scenes is a major factor in allowing the audience to care about something other than when the next series of whiz-bang laser battles and spaceship explosions will happen. Not only does Rogue One maintain its discipline in not trying to outdo the trend of massive destruction pervading most blockbusters, but it also allows for these sequences to feel organically derived from the deeds and logical motivations of its characters, instead of adhering to standard scripting beats. Director Gareth Edwards helms epic moments with a sure hand, never losing a sense of scale and spatial awareness in a glut of special effects, never forgetting what everyone is actually fighting for. Watching a battle in which the stakes are clear, and the course of which can actually be understood, is itself an act of dissent in the current action climate, just another element that sets this spinoff apart from contemporaries that go through the predictable motions.

That’s not to say that Rogue One is quite strong enough to stand on its own two legs, however. Without its reliance on the iconic assets and the rich history it draws from, there would be very little to distinguish this tale from any number of forgettable sci-fi adventures. Unfortunately, the writers seem a little too aware of this, and consistently sprinkle reminders of the older films throughout. Though the callbacks never reach the shameless levels of Episode VII‘s fan service, they are unnecessary all the same, especially the use of certain digital recreations that do more to distract from the immersion than contribute to it. Time used for nostalgia-tugging moments that act as a crutch could have been better used developing more unique merits. This is a Star Wars film, of course, and that context fills in many blanks, but it’s Rogue One‘s attempts to step out into the unknown and stake a claim to places independent of that which would overshadow it that makes its other flaws more forgivable.

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Where the continuation of the Skywalker saga remains safely nestled in the warm embrace of the past, Rogue One squirms away to garner a glimpse of the future, setting a semi-defiant tone almost immediately. Through a small act of insurgence at the outset to one of the most satisfying endings the franchise has to offer, the deprivation of safe and familiar convention elicits the kind of excitement that only comes from the new, looking out beyond the horizon, to the mystery and wonder of somewhere far, far away.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Goomba Stomp’s Film section.