I was at first unsure as to whether I would see this movie, as I am – in general – unenthusiastic about prequels, and I knew this one would be dark (at least for a Star Wars movie). But for the last day of winter vacation I took the whole family to the movies, and this is the one we chose.
Capsule Summary: Rogue One tells the story of the events that lead up to the original Star Wars – the people and actions that eventually put the Death Star plans in the hands of Princess Leia Organa. This is a classic war story set in the Star Wars universe, and is well-told, well-paced, and ultimately a satisfying – if not terribly cheerful – entry in the Star Wars mythology.
More Spoilery Review:
The movie introduces us to Jyn Orso, at first a very young child, as her father Galen is forcibly recruited – at gunpoint – to work on some secret project for the Empire. Galen expected this, and has arranged a secret hideaway for Jyn, where she will hopefully be safe until his friend Saw Gerrera can find her. This at least deprives the Empire of any hostages to use against Galen, but he is still taken away and Jyn is left afraid and alone.
Many years later, Jyn is a young woman imprisoned by Imperials; they apparently don't know who she is, exactly, but she's become a jaded and cynical person (unsurprisingly) and isn't even terribly enthusiastic about being rescued from prison!
However, the Rebellion has a very strong reason to rescue her: they believe that her father Galen is still a key engineer in the creation of an incredible weapon and hope they can use her to get in contact with Galen, perhaps extract him while getting information about this weapon.
Or rather, that's the line they give her. In reality, her chosen companion and, at least at first, guard, Cassian Andor, has clear instructions: there's to be no extraction, just an assassination. And we've seen, in his first appearance, that Cassian is quite capable of killing someone if they seem to be a threat to a mission…
Just from this beginning, you know that Rogue One is going to be a darker story than the usual Star Wars film, and it doesn't shrink from this approach. No one – and I mean NO ONE – is safe in this film, except for those that we know must survive, because we've seen them in the films that take place later (e.g., Mon Mothma, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, etc.).
The earlier movies were, mostly, event/plot driven. There's certainly a straightforward plot driving this movie, but the dynamics and events of the plot are to a large extent dependent on the characters. Jyn and Cassian find that they are increasingly in over their heads as what seemed a relatively simple, if very dangerous, mission – find her father and rescue (or kill) him – spirals out of control into what is ultimately a desperate infiltration of one of the most secure Imperial installations in the Galaxy in search of vital information that will make the difference between the life and death of countless planets.
The side characters are what help bring the world to life. Oh, we know and recognize the setting well enough, but without the familiar characters we need new ones to care about, or to hate. Perhaps the most important and often overlooked of these – even by the other characters – is Bodhi Rook, the Imperial cargo pilot whose defection triggers the entire plot. Untrusted by either side, subjected to a mind-ripping interrogation, Rook is nonetheless able to regain his sanity and focus, and is in some ways the real hero of the movie, despite being at first nothing more than a MacGuffin to get things moving.
Monk-like Chirrut Imwe, one of the guardians of the Whills and the closest thing we see to a true Jedi in this film, brings both humor and wisdom to counterpoint the deadpan, cynical practicality of his lifetime companion Baze Malbus, and both of them have something to teach the main characters Jyn and Cassian. Repurposed Imperial Droid, now pilot and Rebel soldier K-2S0, is at turns creepily cold and startlingly insightful, with an acid wit that never deserts him.
The heroes of course need villains to oppose them. The main opposition comes from Orson Krennic, Director of Weapons Research, for whom the Death Star is the crowning achievement of a lifetime – an achievement dependent to a great extent on the work of Galen Orso, which is why Krennic had to have him retrieved. Krennic, however, is not himself secure from higher-placed members of the Empire, and has to walk a tightrope between the rapacious Grand Moff Tarkin – who at first doubts the effectiveness of the Death Star and then, upon seeing it in action, uses relatively minor failures in Krennic's command to co-opt control of the planetoid-sized battle station – and the terrifying Darth Vader, who allows Krennic to attempt to regain control of his project while demonstrating just how little Krennic's ambitions mean to Vader or the Emperor.
Technically, Rogue One is brilliant. The battles are filmed with precise and well-thought-out timing, the sets are convincingly solid, the special effects top-notch. This was a great film for watching, just for the visuals alone, although – no doubt partly to maintain the stark atmosphere of the film – we rarely got to see pleasant areas of the Empire (and the one really nice place we get to see gets destroyed shortly thereafter).
The re-animation of Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin is startlingly effective; only in the longer scenes can one see hints that this isn't actually a living actor. The real tip-off comes from the voice itself; whoever is editing or imitating Tarkin's voice is just a hair off, missing a bit of the gravitas that Cushing put into every word he spoke. Princess Leia's appearance is also very good, although she is only on-screen for a short time and thus doesn't face the challenges that Tarkin did.
Darth Vader gets one sequence to himself and in a matter of minutes manages to emphasize WHY his name was feared throughout the Galaxy; he is an unstoppable, pitiless force of destruction and only sheer numbers, luck, and determination allow ANY of the Rebels to escape with their lives.
Overall, this was an excellent entry into the Star Wars canon, and is probably the best prequel I've ever seen. Highly recommended!