ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

As long as I live, I will never be able to fully understate the importance of the Star Wars franchise when it comes to filmdom as whole.  Even as a child, watching as my parents obtained a VHS copy of A New Hope from the video rental section of a suburban Pick ‘n Save, I knew I was in for something special, and found myself somehow already aware that my viewing of this epic later that evening would have an life-long impression on my impressionable soul.  However, this was not my first true exposure to the seminal sci-fi saga, as that came thanks to Return of the Jedi, which a relative had taped off HBO and thrown onto a videocassette that I would watch religiously as the years went by.  Nevertheless, my viewing of A New Hope that night helped to officially kick off my interest in the trilogy as a whole-now, the events of Jedi made a bit more sense.

As one would expect, to fill in the obvious story gaps I would eventually need to see the middle film, The Empire Strikes Back, which was also finally seen thanks to another recorded version taped off network television.  Strangely, this masterpiece didn’t make much of an impact on me at the time, and wouldn’t for a number of years.  Maybe it was the training scenes on Dagobah, maybe it was the political overtones present in places like Cloud City, maybe it was simply my love for the first and third films at the time-A New Hope always struck me as a perfect adventure, while Jedi comes off as the Die Hard of the original series, with an excellent opening sequence involving the superb Jabba the Hutt and later scenes set on Endor with the still-misunderstood Ewoks.  Simply put, these were two undeniably fun movies with just the right amount of mythology and relationship building that set them apart from similar franchises such as Star Trek-for a big budget trilogy of films, Star Wars always felt somewhat intimate, even as spacecraft flew pass the camera in the blink of an eye or when the mighty Death Star appeared onscreen.  At least Empire began with those legendary scenes on Hoth and ended with that emotional lightsaber duel between hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) & main villain Darth Vader, one that would be reprised in Jedi.  And no, the big reveal of Skywalker’s lineage wasn’t a surprise at all.  It had been spoiled countless times over by then.

Luckily, the release of the Special Editions in early 1997 not only gave me a chance to see all three original titles in theaters, but also helped me to truly appreciate the full scope of the trilogy, even with all the newly added scenes and upgraded special effects.  Unfortunately, the good vibes following my viewing of said Special Editions would be shattered two years later with the release of The Phantom Menace, the first of three prequels meant to explain the events leading up to A New Hope and give some backstory to Anakin Skywalker, the man who would become Darth Vader.  A CG-heavy effort with useless side characters (I’m looking squarely at you, Jar Jar), a dull primary cast and the few decent moments, like the pod race & final lightsaber duel with Darth Maul, far overshadowed by a murky plot set the tone for the second & third installments, 2002’s Attack of the Clones & 2005’s Revenge of the Sith.  Despite valiant efforts by Liam Neeson, Samuel L.  Jackson & Ewan McGregor-the latter portraying a perfectly respectable Obi-Wan Kenobi-and the overall tone becoming much darker as the series progressed, I can’t say I particularly cared much at all for the prequels, and haven’t taken the time to watch any again since first laying eyes upon them all those years ago.

As the years following Revenge of the Sith went by, I would often find myself wondering from time to time what, if anything, would happen to the franchise going forward.  Sure, television (and briefly theaters) saw the animated Clone Wars & Rebels series’ experience some kid-friendly success, but would theaters ever see a new live-action entry at some point?  I will admit to having my own idea for a sequel to the original trilogy, entitled The Balance of The Force, which had a terrible premise.  It’s best left untold.

In late 2012, when George Lucas, the man who created Star Wars and was now looked upon quite unpleasantly following the prequel misfires, let go of parent company Lucasfilm and turned the reins over to Disney, the announcement was made almost immediately that new live-action films would be entering production shortly, with J.  J.   Abrams handing directorial duties on the first such entry, eventually titled The Force Awakens.  For a man who rescued the aging Star Trek franchise with his 2009 reboot, Abrams seemed like the perfect choice to save Star Wars from the damage done by the ridiculous prequel trilogy.  Every trailer seemed to present a nostalgic film that combined the old with the new-cast members from the original trilogy matched wits with a group of fresh-faced newbies, while the overall look seemed to be relying more on practical effects and a story that echoed A New Hope.  Released in December of 2015, The Force Awakens was a critical & commercial smash, officially breathing new life into a series of films that badly needed it and reinvigorating interest overall in these beloved, but still somewhat forgotten characters.  Truly, this was a Star Wars film for all-a thrill ride for kids, a nostalgic trip for adults, a joy to behold.

Now, it was around the time that the second trailer was released for The Force Awakens that a brief, mysterious video was shown at the annual Star Wars Celebration in the spring of 2015.  A surprise reveal to the audience in attendance, the clip was set on an unknown planet, and after a few moments of the camera moving throughout a lush interstellar landscape with voiceover accompaniment by the late Sir Alec Guiness as Obi-Wan, panned up to reveal the Death Star on the horizon.  This would become the first true look at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first in a series of spin-off films set within the Star Wars universe and, in this case, meant to tell the tale of the rebels who stole the plans for the space station referenced in the opening crawl of A New Hope.  Following this tantalizing tease, little was known about Rogue One for some time, with the exception of casting announcements, the occasional publicity photo and the appointing of Gareth Edwards (2010’s Monsters, 2014’s dreadful Godzilla remake) as director.  Fortunately, not long after The Force Awakens’ success, a full trailer was finally released in the spring of 2016, one that, much like our early looks at The Force Awakens, showcased a film seemingly devoid of Lucas’ trademark CG-fests and emphasizing more grit than one might expect.  Further trailers continued to present the film as such, building excitement and teasing a possible return of a certain bad guy, however it was also revealed that Rogue One would, with only months until its release, undergo several weeks of reshoots following some allegedly disastrous early screenings.  As a result, additional screenwriters were enlisted to try their hand at fixing any errors, while score composer Alexandre Desplat withdrew from the project entirely due to his schedule being unable to accommodate the additional shooting.  Thankfully, Hollywood’s go-to soundtrack guy Michael Giacchino was quickly hired to replace Desplat, and now the only job left was to reassure fans that, despite the seemingly bad buzz, Rogue One would still turn out just fine.

Did it?

To answer that question, I do have something lengthy to say.

What I will respond with is that every so often, a movie comes along that serves to captivate in ways never thought possible.  Such films exist on a level beyond entertainment, and while they may not reach the level that causes oneself to think differently about the world around them, as was the case with a movie like Arrival, those same films still possess the power to inspire, as well as remind us why we love the medium in the first place.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is one of those films.

Everything about this movie is nearly perfect, from the flawless casting, to the exceptional effects, to the writing, which clearly was helped by the recent rewrites and is only bolstered by the easy-to-follow pacing, undoubtedly another outcome of the reshoot process.  While one might wonder what the original form of Rogue One might have looked like or if Desplat’s unreleased score benefited said version, those details hardly matter now, as this truly is a film for Star Wars purists as much as The Force Awakens.  Giacchino does an excellent job emulating John Williams’ iconic soundtrack-Rogue One sees him bringing in enough cues from the primary saga and reminding audiences why he’s such a talent at updating legendary film music, especially after his work on Star Trek and last year’s Jurassic World, in which he performed a similar feat in taking the musical wheel from Williams.  Forget his largely unmemorable work on last month’s Doctor Strange-this is absolutely his finest work of the year.

The cast is incredible, showcasing a diverse group of actors with a compelling female lead in Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a young woman charged with the task of finding her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a lead engineer in the construction of the Death Star and who may possess a way of stopping it.  As Erso, Jones exudes toughness, but along with Mikkelsen, in a role that thankfully redeems him following his bland villain in Doctor Strange, both know how to deliver emotion and a compelling father-daughter relationship.  The ragtag group of Rebels enlisted to assist Jyn is also finely cast as well, with the standouts being Diego Luna as Rebel officer Cassian Andor and Forest Whitaker in yet another performance this year that sees him sporting a bizarre accent, one that fortunately works better this time around.  Alan Tudyk provides the voice for K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid who delivers some excellent lines and is absolutely this film’s BB-8, while Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, an Imperial weapons director, portrays a baddie with some actual intimidation and the capability of producing genuine fear both onscreen as much as throughout a captive theater audience.  Finally, the much-anticipated return of Darth Vader is handled well, with the beloved James Earl Jones again giving Vader his welcome mechanical, breathy baritone, and several cameos only assist in driving the nostalgic flavor through the roof.

Stylistically, Rogue One looks excellent, in many ways far more akin to the original trilogy than The Force Awakens, the latter of which succeeded in many ways but never felt more like an extension of the good ol’ days than this one.  Practical effects are pushed to the forefront, while the CG is used appropriately, whether the action takes place on any number of interesting planets, in a space battle reminiscent of A New Hope, or even when gazing upon the Death Star itself, loving recreated down to the most minute detail for Rogue One.  Greig Fraser’s cinematography is top-notch, reflecting a world ravaged by the Empire, one that contains a slew of Easter Eggs fans will love tracking down.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a wonderful film, a perfect addition to the Star Wars theatrical universe and a true achievement in all aspects of casting, writing, visual effects & music.  It absolutely casts A New Hope in a slightly different, yet still exciting light, and never for a moment did I want the adventure to end.  Many times throughout the film I found myself with a smile that wouldn’t leave, and more than a few tears as well-to feel like a child again, watching those movies with eyes full of wonder, is a beautiful thing, one I was happy to experience again.  With further sequels and spin-offs on the horizon, it’s safe to say that the Star Wars story will continue for some time, and if the quality of future installments are anywhere close to Rogue One, I can remain comfortable in knowing that the feelings of childhood will remain forever close to my heart, in a place that can be found a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.