Disney has a lot riding on this film. As the first stand-alone Star Wars movie, it needs to work as a solo outing, but also as a part of a greater whole. From the first moments, it's clear this isn't a normal Star Wars film: gone is the familiar yellow crawl and the opening music. Yet there is so much connective tissue that makes it flow perfectly into the rest of the series that it works on several levels. But it isn't perfect.
First the good. Our main characters are all likable, although some could benefit from a bit more backstory. I found myself emotionally invested in the characters at least, and that goes to show how well written and acted they are. The stand outs for me are Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid, who basically steals every scene he's in, and Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, a blind non-Jedi force user who personified what the force is all about. Of course, the film wouldn't have worked without Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who basically held everything together as the plot raced by. Although the first act is a bit jumbled and the characters introduced very quickly, things never feel rushed. Jyn is given the bulk of the character development, and it's impressive how much I ended up rooting for her to succeed in her quest to fulfill her own personal destiny.
Then there is Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) who is kind of the heroic lead, but with an edge that I don't think Star Wars has really tackled before. Actually, every character has an edge to them, and that darker element when boiled down to the basics touched on the motivations of every character throughout the movie. The Rebellion is a reaction to the Empire, a deep and desperate fear of an Empire who will destroy an entire planet if it gets out of line.
This fear forces several characters to cross ethical lines that are common in real life war, but are generally glossed over in fantasy. The more kid-friendly main sequence movies never really address the often intangible lines people have to cross in war. Who is really a monster is often a matter of perspective, especially when the victors end up writing history books. Because the film isn't afraid to have our Rebel characters make dark choices, it isn't always easy to like our heroes, even though it made for compelling drama to watch them struggle with those choices.
There is more than just drama and character, though. The special effects are fantastic (well about 90% of them are). The numerous references to the rest of the franchise are almost all on point except for a couple of minor unnecessary ones. My favorites involved minor characters, including the leaders of the X-Wing squadrons that lead the attack on the Death Star in 'A New Hope', and some of the Rebel leaders like Mon Mothma.
The only major flaw I can think of centers around the choice to use a character from the original film played by an actor that died nearly twenty years ago. The use of CGI to replicate the character isn't quite up to the level of photo-realism and it made the performance feel off. Thankfully the same cannot be said for a certain major villain's return which I won't detail here, except to say it is probably the best use of the character I've ever seen.
Rogue One is darker than 'The Empire Strikes Back'. It is impactful to the universe, beautifully made, and wonderfully realized as an immediate prequel to the original Star Wars. It stands alone as the tale of how the Rebellion stole the plans to the first Death Star. It isn't what I thought it would be, and because of that I'm a bit conflicted about it, but I imagine those conflicts will be put aside when I see it again.
For now I'll say this is a well made film that feels like Star Wars, and had more than enough to tide me over until next year when Episode VIII comes out. I think Disney's gamble is going to pay off.
This review is spoiler free, but the comments are not. Feel free to post spoilers in the comments!
J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related.