We were warned. Gareth Edwards and Kathleen Kennedy said, over and over again, that the upcoming Rogue One would be a gritty war film. Even knowing that going in, it’s hard to expect the movie that Rogue One really is, especially since it’s a Star Wars film. From beginning to end, the film invited you out of the glitzy, happy world of the Skywalkers and Solos and shows you the dark underbelly of what it would actually be like to fight in a war in the stars. And in that, it succeeds brilliantly.
Rogue One, for those of you who are still unsure on the timeline, takes place during the opening crawl of Episode IV: A New Hope. Specifically, it covers the line, “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.” It’s a story that fans have wondered at for years, inspiring countless tales in Star Wars comics, video games, books, and a Choose Your Own Adventure title that was only available in the UK. Fans have argued endlessly about who really stole the plans, which is why it makes so much sense that this film feels like it was written by fans.
Gary Whitta, one of the early draft writers of the film, called it “the most expensive fan film ever made.” He’s absolutely right. Rogue One seeps love for the original trilogy, the prequels, and even the two animated series Rebels and Clone Wars from every inch of its film. It’s stuffed with references, from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos to full and necessary additions to classic characters. There are two call outs in particular that sticks out like a sore thumb in how unnecessary they are, (and both are going to leave poor Pablo Hidalgo’s story group with some explaining to do) but for the most part Rogue One only links up with the films in ways that are absolutely necessary to tell its story.
And that story is grim as hell. These rebels aren’t the shiny idealists you might have expected from the brief glimpses we got at the Battles of Yavin, Endor and Hoth. These are men and women who will do whatever it takes to obtain their freedom, and often toe or even cross the line in order to do it. They describe themselves as spies, sabateours and assassins.
So it’s a testament to how well constructed this movie is that these morally grey characters are so fascinating and, ultimately, loveable. The true standouts of the movie are Alan Tudyk’s K2-SO, the sassiest droid in the galaxy, and a pair of former Jedi temple guards played by Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang. But every character in the film gives you a reason to care about their fate.
We’ve all seen the original trilogy, and we know that none of these characters are anywhere to be found, so I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to tell you that some of them don’t make it out. After all, this is a war movie, more akin to Saving Private Ryan than Flash Gordon. The final battle is brutal and merciless, and heartbreaking in its tragedy.
That tragedy, that willingness to cross the storytelling line, ultimately elevated Star Wars as a whole. I wrote a few days ago that Rogue One was make or break for Star Wars as a franchise, and this does what needs to be done to justify making more and more Star Wars films. Now we can only hope that each subsequent chapter in the saga continues to build on this success.