Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) (PG-13)

This review contains SPOILERS!
"Rogue One" should be un-spoilable (which isn't a word, I realize). This is the nature of prequels. We know what's going to happen and from just the trailer we know roughly what the movie is about: the reconnaissance mission that captured the plans for the Death Star prior to Episode IV. If this comes as news to you, you either didn't read the spoiler alert, didn't watch any of the trailers, or have no idea about any of the "Star Wars" movies, in which case you probably shouldn't watch "Rogue One". This is a movie filled with Easter eggs and wonderful side moments to placate the many "Star Wars" fans.
But as much as it fits into the cannon of "Star Wars",  "Rogue One" is most decidedly not a "Star Wars" movie in the modus operandi of the original Lucas films. This is because Lucas is, against all odds, an optimist and due to the structure of a simple narrative, we can expect certain outcomes. "Rogue One" defies this, and rightly so.
Although the Lucas optimism might make a safer film, the critical and popular reception to this movie thus far has proven that the writers made the right decision. All that being said, do not go into "Rogue One" thinking that it will be a perfect movie because—even though it adds so much complexity to the original trilogy without treading on the sanctity of the beloved franchise (no easy feat)—this is a movie with a lot of faults.
The first half of the film is clunky and slow. We jump between crucial figures who get no real introduction including Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), two characters whose important is soon explained by their proximity to the story's protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). It feels like Roger Ebert's complaint of Nolan's closing "Dark Knight" film: there is too much going on in too short of a time. Sometimes the cue cards that tell us which planet we are whipping off to show of writer Tony Gilroy's "Bourne" franchise credentials. It should come as no surprise that Darth Vader makes an appearance but after all the hype, I almost wish that that scene was cut from the movie because it feels patronizing and cheap.
Yet the film slows down and introduces a few crucial characters like Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus (played by Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang) and the robotic sassy character K-2SO voiced pretty perfectly by Alan Tudyk. What's almost amazing about all this is that we don't feel so lost when the movie gains its footing.
"Rogue One" asks complex questions about determination, ethics, and self-sacrifice. Although it does wrap up very nicely, the impact of the movie was very clearly felt in the theater I went to see it at. The reaction was very physical.
I think the reason "Rogue One's" second half is so splendid is because it decidedly moves away from the Lucas campy film making that we somewhat expect. This is a movie almost forty years later that is re-imagining the entire franchise and somehow this works really well. Although there seems to other alternative, it's nice to see a movie with this kind of budget committing to the only outcome that feels honest to the story it is telling. It does not coddle its viewer.
This also proves that Gareth Edwards is a force behind the camera. As only his third movie, "Rogue One" will likely not be the high point of the "Monsters" and "Godzilla" director. He handles the action sequences with such spectacle that it's almost breathtaking.
"Rogue One" feels like the very first "Star Wars" movie that actually lives up to its namesake. This movie is about a war; and we realize that immediately.
All my complaints aside, "Rogue One" is a testament to everyone who worked on the film. It's artistry meeting blockbuster and I feel hopeful (pun intended) that other action movies will take cues from this and follow in its footsteps.
"Rogue One" deserves all the praise it is getting. Go see it in the theaters.

Score: ★★★½

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