“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016): Exceeds Expectation, Delightfully Expanding the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rousing triumph, a bold check in the win column that is earned with a thrilling story, a sensational cast, brilliant special effects, keen direction from Gareth Edwards, and a terrific, inspired score from Michael Giacchino. It also succeeds because it takes chances. It contains a darker tone. It is two steps removed from the main cast of Skywalkers, albeit their history and futures permeate the film. It dares to be yet another story centered primarily around the Death Star without feeling like retread material (although it is the rare Star Wars film where the Death Star does not blow up). It gathers a diverse cast of characters together in a ragtag team of heroes – okay, that’s kind of what Star Wars always does, but here it is different in a number of ways. Felicity Jones makes for an engaging, tragic hero as Jyn Erso, a character who has to deal with loss, sacrifice, and dedication. The film is planted firmly in the “Wars” of Star Wars removing the light sabers focusing on the more tactile resources the rebellion has at its disposal. It’s a war film along the line of Dirty Dozen or a space western in the lines of the Magnificent Seven. The odds are against our heroes and against the film makers. The results are far better than anyone could have hoped for, a Star Wars film outside of the trilogies but just as captivating, imaginative, and breathtaking as the best the previous films have to offer. Not without its own set of flaws, from short changing some of the supporting characters to some potentially irksome CGI characters to initially sluggish pacing, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a welcomed addition to the family, one that will invite just as many multiple viewings as Star Wars: A Force Awaken or the original trilogy.

The story behind Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is all about the journey as the ending its story is well known. The film is a direct prequel to Star Wars VI: A New Hope providing the tale behind the rebels who dared to face the Empire and steal the plans for their new, deadly weapon known as the Death Star. The film centers around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who lost her father to the Empire when she was a mere child only to be raised by a radical rebel named Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker). Stating that Imperial flags are far easier to deal with if you don’t look up to see them, Jyn distances herself from anything associated with the Empire and the Rebellion alike, choosing to ignore the worlds around her. This all changes when the Rebellion frees her from imprisonment in hopes she can lead them to Saw…and her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who she learns is still alive. The adventure that follows ignites a determined drive in Jyn to lead a scatter-shot group of rebel pilots and assassins to steal the plans of the Death Star. putting their lives on the line to provide the Rebellion a chance to defeat the Empire.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story belongs to Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso just as much as Star Wars VII: A Force Awakens belongs to Rey (Daisy Ridley). Her life and future are filled with epic tragedy but she retains a spunk and spirit that is truly and uniquely “Star Wars.” Instead of light sabers and Jedi, Jyn has only her own grit and those around her to forge her story. She teams with a rebel pilot named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Empire droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to uncover the truth behind the rumors of the Death Star and the location of her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen). They are joined by an Imperial pilot (Bodhi Rook – Riz Ahmed), a blind monk who believes in the force (Chirrut Imwe – Donnie Yen) and Chirrut’s body guard, companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Felicity commands the screen even when surrounded by a large supporting cast or an army of Stormtroopers. She embodies a charismatic spirit, she is a natural, inspired leader. It is a terrific character and her performance carries much of the film.

It helps greatly that everyone around her is equally up to the challenge of filling their roles. Diego Luna excels as Cassian facing a series on inner conflicts as he struggles between the orders the Rebellion has given him and doing what he sees as the right thing. Does he follow through with the directives or does he follow the path of siding with Jyn Erso on her quest, a quest he knows will, if successful, will save millions of lives, but may very well cost him his own. Alan Tudyk voices K-2SO with a dry sense of humor not unlike his counter part C-3PO but with far less whine and a hell of a lot more bite. He nearly steals much of the film. Rifling whatever K-2SO fails to capture, Donnie Yen breathes the old Jedi ways and the force into the film with passion and heart — and tons of kick ass skill. Every scene that features Chirrut Imwe makes Rogue One: A Star Wars Story  that much better a film. Riz Ahmed and Wen Jiang round out the cast just a admirably as Robert Vaughn and James Coburn round out Magnificent Seven. Rogue One would not be same with out any one of these characters despite some of them not getting nearly enough the screen time they deserved.

Surrounding a capable cast of characters are some of the best special effects any Star Wars film has to offer. The landscapes are exquisite, impeccably designed and undeniably beautiful. Each new world the film introduces is breathtaking from the desert horizon of Jedha to the lush, sandy beaches of Scarif. The film offers new creatures, new ships, new droids, and new Stormtrooper designs. It has everything a Star Wars fan would want out of a Star Wars film. It also focuses heavily on the “War” part of the title, with the heroes fighting of a barrage of Troopers, Tie-Fighters and AT-AT Walkers. Visually stunning! But not every effect is a solid success. Some of the effects that feature entirely CGI human characters suffer from “Uncanny Valley” syndrome and may take many viewers out of the film. They are close – very close – and fascinating but off just enough to be unsettling. They are arguably necessary for the story and are well intended in context of the film, so much so that the purpose of their inclusion supersedes the flaws in the execution. As far as other Star Wars staples, the Death Star itself and the Imperial Star Destroyers swarming around it have never looked more impressive.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” (Jonathan Olley, Lucasfilm-Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzillla), helming only his third feature film, exceeds all expectations with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He guides the script from Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy and John Knoll & Gary Whitta with a sure eye providing astonishing visuals, thrilling action, lavish sets and emotionally charged character beats. His Rogue One easily stands alongside those from George Lucas, J.J. Abrams, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand. Miraculously – or, perhaps, with the guiding hand of Disney and Abrams – Edwards creates a Star Wars film with a unique flavor, a far grittier tone, without sacrificing a single iota of what makes a film as Star Wars movie. Edwards and the writing team blend the film into the structure of the Star Wars universe so succinctly that it can easily be considered Star Wars 3.5, becoming possibly the best “prequel” film ever, maybe even making the film it sets up all that much better. Along with Edwards, composer Michael Giacchino steps into some mighty big shoes following the legendary John Williams. He does a splendid job, borrowing what he needs to call to the iconic images while adding a stirring and impressive original score that elevates the visuals in the precise way all Star Wars fans desire out of their Star Wars soundtrack. It all adds up to a film that delights and thrills its audience.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a true cinematic treat, a rare prequel that succeed in matching the enthusiasm and delight of its source material and manages to advance the story as well. Jyn Erso is a terrific, tragic hero full of hope and spitfire – a true rebel. Felicity Jones dives into the character with a captivating determination and heart. Along with Diego Luna, they provide characters that have a story arc worth championing, worth calling heroic. They both do so with a magnetic tenacity that make their characters incredibly easy to root for and admire – not so much for who they are but for who they can – and will – become. Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen step into smaller roles but bring larger than required chops and skill. As Saw Gerrera and Galen Erso, their scenes with Jyn are highlights of the film with Whitaker simultaneously chewing the scenery and giving it his all as if it were Oscar bait. Director Gareth Edwards succeeds in steering the Star Wars cinematic universe just outside the boundaries of the Skywalker storyline, providing a promising start to future “Star Wars Story” films. The effects, the cinematography, the script, the score, the entire film is successful in countless ways that drown out the few flaws the film may have.

Oh, and, yeah, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story gives fans another taste of the best villain ever created – Darth Vader. Complete with James Earl Jones voicing the dialog. Thank you.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Doc Rotten
Editor-In-Chief / Founder / Podcast Producer at Horror News Radio
Doc Rotten is the founder of Gruesome Magazine. He is also a film critic for Gruesome Magazine and the podcast host & producer for Horror News Radio, Monster Movie Podcast, Decades of Horror: 1970s, The American Horror Story Fan Podcast and Hannibal Fan Podcast. He is also co-host of the Dracula podcast on TV TALK and is a contributing reviewer for HorrorNews.Net and Widescreen Warrior.

Doc a lifelong fan of horror films, sci-fi flicks and monster movies first discovering Universal Monsters and Planet of the Apes as a young child in the 1970's searching out every issue of Famous Monster of Filmland (and, later, Fangoria). Favorite films include Jaws, The Car, The Birds, The Tingler, Vampire Circus and The Exorcist. Still a huge fan of horror films from the 70s, Doc continues consuming horror films to this day for the site, for the podcasts and for the fun of it all.