Star Wars fans struggle to agree on what they want these days.
2015’s The Force Awakens was largely praised, but received criticism for hewing too closely to the structure of A New Hope – and it therefore felt a bit familiar to some. 2017’s The Last Jedi, meanwhile, got hit with backlash for a number of reasons, some dubious, some fair, but whatever you think of the film, it is markedly different to Star Wars movies of the past.
Rogue One is both of those things at the same time: familiar, but different. It’s jammed onto the front of A New Hope, ending moments before the older film starts, and it holds the distinction of killing off its entire cast of newly-introduced characters, which no Star Wars movie has tried before. It mixes pleasing classic Star Wars imagery of X-Wings, Darth Vader, Yavin and the Death Star with the extremely vague structure of a heist movie. Rogue One also features an ensemble of characters that aren’t of the regular hero archetypes we see in the Star Wars saga films.
Perhaps that combination is why people love Rogue One so much. This past weekend, the movie trended on Twitter, with people praising various elements of the film, like its cinematography and memorable scene of a Darth Vader rampage. Since Lucasfilm paused its plans for yearly Star Wars movies after Solo: A Star Wars story flopped, Rogue One will likely remain the sole successful standalone spin-off.
But is it the best Star Wars film? Not really, we’d argue, because despite an extremely strong second half featuring arguably the best Star Wars space battle in history, it’s a wonky film in terms of characterization. This is a pretty common complaint leveled at Rogue One, but it’s not for nothing.
Considering Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso leads the assault on the Empire at the end of the film, she’s otherwise a pretty unassertive presence in Rogue One. She’s someone we’re told has a criminal past, who hasn’t seen her father since he was taken by the Empire, but the film doesn’t sell you on the sense of a journey. Her eventual commitment to the Rebel cause comes out of nowhere, barring her father’s death, which is at least partly caused by a Rebel Alliance bombing raid. You don’t feel like you truly get to know Jyn in Rogue One, or what she’s about.
And that lack of attention to characterization extends to the movie’s co-lead, too. When we meet Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor at the start of the film, the Rebel officer murders his own contact because he lacks the ability to escape the surrounding stormtroopers. This is presumably intended to show us he’s a man who’ll do drastic things to get the job done and keep the Rebel Alliance safe, but he doesn’t really do anything this dark again for the rest of the movie, save for briefly considering pulling the sniper trigger on Jyn’s father.
Why show that sequence to begin with, then? If you took that scene out, Andor would risk being a bit of a blank slate. As it stands, it’s hard to see how he’s compelling enough to be the lead of his own Disney Plus series. When you consider that K2S0 will be joining him, though – the reprogrammed Imperial droid played sarcastically by Alan Tudyk that steals the movie – that premise does start to sound more interesting. The wider ensemble cast is collectively just likeable enough in Rogue One for you to be invested in their theft of the Death Star plans, but you don’t have one great protagonist to carry this film.
That space battle, though
If you grew up obsessing over the details of the Star Wars universe, you’ve probably got a lot of fondness for the spaceships. And the Battle of Scarif that caps off Rogue One – taking place on both the planet’s surface and in orbit above – is a terrific set piece, featuring some of the most thrilling action ever seen in the movies. For all the unfair criticism The Last Jedi gets, its overly long space sequences of big, slow ships getting blown up by the First Order don’t compare to the zippy dogfights and capital ship collisions going on above Scarif.
A great Star Wars film needs a good space battle, then, and Rogue One brings it. The sequence of an X-Wing coming out of hyperspace into the fleet is one of the best in a beautiful-looking movie:
The Battle of Scarif features an enjoyably videogame-y conceit: that the planet is blocked off by an Imperial ‘shield gate’, which stops communications and ships moving between the surface of the planet and orbit. That basically dooms everyone trapped on Scarif, including the X-Wings of Blue Squadron (RIP), and when the Death Star turns up to destroy all evidence of the skirmish, Jyn, Cassian and villain Orson Krennic.
This is the other reason why Rogue One is memorable: wiping out your entire cast of heroes is different for a Star Wars movie. That makes it an easy ‘left field’ choice for the best one.
The closing minutes transition this movie into a direct prologue for A New Hope. The story is no longer about the characters, because they’re all gone. It’s about the Death Star plans as they pass from one doomed Rebel soldier to another, evading a murderous Darth Vader so they can get into the hands of a slightly eyebrow-raising CG Princess Leia.
It’s a thrilling finale to an inconsistent movie. But it’s cool that it got made. With Solo flopping at the box office, it feels unlikely that we’ll ever see another risky proposition in this vein from Star Wars in the cinema. Instead, Disney Plus is likely to become the domain of more out-there ideas for Star Wars fiction, and The Mandalorian’s success shows that being on a streaming service will have no negative impact on the amount of attention it can get.
As The Rise of Skywalker hits cinemas, it feels like the first era of Star Wars movies under Disney is coming to an end. And we know that, like Rogue One, the story of Episode 9 owes something to at least a few Star Wars movies from the past, with the return of Emperor Palpatine. The next phase of Star Wars films would do well to take us away from the characters and imagery of movies from 40 years ago. As iconic as they are, a fresher approach is needed if people are still going to be as invested in this universe 10 or 20 years from now.
Still, if you’re a Star Wars fan, you can’t help but wonder where these spin-offs might’ve gone if Solo was a success. Rogue One says that these franchise pictures can be risky and rewarding, even if it only truly works because it leads into a movie you already love.