Year: 2016
Director(s): Gareth Edwards
Writer(s): Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Region of Origin: US

Rating: PG-13
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Digital, Color, 134 mins

Synopsis: The Rebel Alliance makes a risky move to steal the plans for the Death Star, setting up the epic saga to follow. (Source)

Rogue One isn’t a film that we needed, but turns out to be a franchise best anyway, turning a storied plot from the Star Wars mythos and using it to create new depth within the universe. If Episode IV was about hope, director Gareth Edwards’ latest is about finding it, sparking the fire and holding on to it now matter what – even if it’s constantly slipping through our fingers. In many ways, the film ends up being everything that The Force Awakens failed to be, introducing us to brand new corners of the universe with a realism that’s wholly immersive. By not relying on the Skywalker family, Edwards shows us the true scope of the battle between the Rebel Alliance and sinister Empire, delivering an underdog heist film that earns its grit and emotion. Boasting great turns from its ensemble (including Felicity Jones and Diego Luna), the film gives us a much-needed outsider’s perspective, with a morally complex story that never feels like its pandering – and, oh yeah, it makes Darth Vader scary again.

As a young girl, Jyn Erso’s (Felicity Jones) father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is abducted by the villainous Empire and her mother a casualty amidst the traumatic event. Raised by a family friend and left to fend for herself, she grows up to be a petty criminal, a thorny, yet inconsequential spec amidst the Empire’s vast reach. When word comes that her long-lost father may have helped to create the Empire’s new secret weapon, and that he may be trying to reach the Rebel Alliance with a way to destroy it, Erso is asked to help track down an old acquaintance who could possibly help to contact him. Though she initially wants to stay on the sidelines, Erso quickly learns that there’s more at stake than she ever could’ve imagined, leading her to join a ragtag group of rebels on a suicide mission that could help to tip the balance in a war with no end.

The most welcome aspect of the film is the unforeseen shades of grey it gives to the Star Wars universe, rooting its plot through street level characters and really making us feel the weight of their struggle, as well as the oppression of the Empire. For the first time in the franchise’s history, good and evil aren’t so binary – not everyone working for the Empire is evil, and, the Rebel Alliance has done some terrible things to maintain some semblance of order. The ambiguity that populates the film is an astonishing new look at a world we thought we new, yet at the same time makes us appreciate what we’ve already seen that much more. Fittingly, the film’s tone follows suit, presenting a dark world in which people are just trying to making from moment to moment, and finally transforming to a film where true heroism is found in the most unlikely of places. At the root of the film, is a story about lost souls finally finding something to live for, and it’s a beautiful thing, especially when contrasted with the film’s gritty action. Though the plot deliberately plays out like a long stretch of bad road, you’ll definitely be cheering by the time it’s over.

Visually, the film may very be the best in the franchise. Edwards and and cinematographer Greig Fraser have created a world that truly feels tactile and lived in. There’s a more industrial feel this time around, with grimy set pieces punctuating beautiful landscapes and vistas. Edwards also has a showman’s hand, with each scene delivering staggering scope and an operatic feel, most noticeable when the camera patiently gazes upon its intergalactic panoramas, and huge Star Destroyers glide slowly amidst their surroundings with real heft. Still, for how big the film feels, there are still a lot of tiny details that add texture and nuance to the big spectacle. It’s an approach that translates well to each action scene, with battles alternating between tense gunfights, martial arts influenced combat, and finally, all out war, which navigates alien sandy beaches and interstellar dogfights.

If there’s a minor weak spot, it’s that most of the characters’ key moments don’t get as much time to breathe within the larger picture – still, the ensemble adds to what isn’t on the page and makes us really feel the stakes. Leading the entire thing, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso is another great female character for a franchise that’s been starved of them. As Erso, Jones is headstrong, but delivers an impactful transformation, going from an orphan to someone who realizes her responsibility to those around her. Jones is always fascinating to watch, balancing a tortured inner struggle with tenacity and charm. Of her co-stars, Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor gets the meatiest role. As a member of the Alliance, he’s tasked with some difficult decisions, embodying most of the film’s struggle with morality and its search for hope. Luna plays Andor as world-weary and makes a few of the film’s later developments stick. Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe, Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus and Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook all round out the cast with their own flair, while Alan Tudyk voices K-2SO, a repurposed droid who benefits from the actor’s comedic slick timing. Lastly, Ben Mendelsohn turns in an eerie villain and franchise high with Orson Krennic, who is just as conflicted and struggling as the heroes, while Mads Mikkelsen has a short, but very sweet role as Galen Erso, Jyn’s stoic, tortured father.

From moment to moment, Rogue One is dense, and there’s a lot that I’m intentionally leaving out. It’s a film that really accentuates what came before, never acting as a slave to it, but playing out in the best complimentary way. For a film that could’ve been perfunctory, there are some really clever twists to the mythology, playing up the series’ idea of how good and evil can sometimes be blurred, with imperfect characters just trying to get by through imperfect situations. Make no mistake, the film isn’t without its faults (it starts off a bit scattershot and some character work feels choppy), but Edwards’ balance between wonder and complex themes is commendable, and what he does right, he really does right. At its best, the film is a reminder that average Joe’s are just as important as the chosen ones, bringing a new sense of vitality to the series and a real hope for its future.