From its opening moments, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story sets to subverting expectations of what a Star Wars films is supposed to feel like. In fact, you might say this is a better Suicide Squad movie than Suicide Squad.
You still get the ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ opening screen, but no blast of John Williams’ iconic score this time. This one starts in darkness and fights its way to the light.
Director Gareth Edwards uses very little light in the first act of the film, opting for a more natural lighting look that also makes the tone decidedly colder than most Star Wars films. Even Empire Strikes Back’s Hoth setting felt warmer than this at times. And there’s not a single snow flake to be found.
But that’s what makes it interesting.
As the movie proceeds, the first act does run into a few problems. Edwards tries to weave in and out of one too many plot threads without giving any of them time enough to breathe and for the audience to connect with any one character.
That said, once we do get introduced to our main cast, we don’t find the usual scoundrels with hearts of gold. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is the kind of Rebel Alliance soldier who’ll do what he has to in order to survive, even if it means killing someone considered an ally. And his reprogrammed former Imperial droid companion, K-2SO (voiced brilliantly by Alan Tudyk) has no regard whatsoever for anyone’s life except maybe Cassian’s…and that could be a stretch. He also happens to steal every scene he’s in and manages to emote better than some of the main cast despite having no discernable facial expressions.
Thankfully, the character we’re meant to connect with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) jumps out front quickly once the story beats begin to settle down near the end of the first act. She’s lived a tough life on the run, surviving however she could since her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced back into the service of the Empire. And it’s in this point that the main plot begins to take shape. And the bond she forms with Cassian gets some of the best emotional storytelling beats of the film in the second act.
As most should know by now, this story takes place just before the events of Episode IV: A New Hope begin. The first Death Star is complete and this is the story of how the Rebels came into possession of the plans used to orchestrate its destruction…whoops, spoilers.
But once the core group is formed, they each get big moments to shine. The blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) is strong in The Force, but may or may not be a lost Jedi. He and his compatriot, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) are a great one-two punch of finesse and brute strength. They also get some of the best one-liners in the entire film.
The main villain of this story, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is just slightly better than a stock Imperial General, who gets put in his place by everyone from Grand Moff Tarkin (fairly impressive CGI work to make Guy Henry look like Peter Cushing as he did in A New Hope) and Darth Vader (voice once again by the great James Earl Jones). Still, Krennic is as smarmy and conniving as they come, and just as power-hungry as any Star Wars villain in history. But the chip on his shoulder is what makes him standout among the others. If only barely so. His wardrobe does create an interesting visual juxtaposition, though.
The third act is where everything comes together and all the emotional beats up to this point truly pay off. It’s big, bold and epic in many of the ways Star Wars fans have come to expect, but with some major exceptions as things draw to a close. The big battle sequence is fast-paced and tense while the dog fights in space are easily on the level of those seen in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith or Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
Long time Star Wars fans will have a few things to look out for, too. Some long-time questions about the planet-destroying space station get definitive, if obvious, answers. There are also a number of cameos from famous characters, though you’ll have to be Eagle-Eyed to catch them all.
As fan service-heavy as the movie is, it also succeeds in creating an emotionally impactful story full of memorable characters and a promise of great things to come. But what this movie’s greatest accomplishment might be is opening up the Star Wars universe to stories outside of those involving the Skywalker family. It’s a big galaxy, and there’s far, far more of it still to see.