Sometimes, the more you love something, the harder it is to say why.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” has been on mind frequently since it came out at the end of last year, but writing about it has repeatedly defeated me – in large part, I suspect, because it's hard for me to look at it through a critical lens. Sure, I understand on an academic level that the film has problems – the Saw Gerrera portion of the film is incomplete, it's needlessly explanatory, the protagonist isn't the most interesting (though “she's passive” has and always will be a garbage, one-size-fits-all complaint) – but when I'm watching it, I don't care. My critical senses fall away, because I love this movie.
“Rogue One” took me by surprise. Not to make this essay a referendum on “The Force Awakens,” but readers of this site will know that I didn't take kindly to Episode VII, so much so that I thought I may have been put off of non-Lucas Star Wars properties forever. The film lived down, and worse, to every expectation I had for it, so much so that it even fulfilled a bad plot idea I'd suggested as a joke (Han flies the Falcon to yet another Death Star) three years before the movie was released.
I say all that to explain that I went into “Rogue One” a hopeful man, but one who wasn't expecting much. What I got was something new and joyful, an entry in the Star Wars saga that truly understands what makes the films work while crafting an original take on the mythos.
I've thought for a long time about what exactly I like so much about “Rogue One,” and if I had to boil it down, I'd say that the movie works because director Gareth Edwards and his team of writers crafted it with a sincere care and love, the likes of which you don't often see in a big budget tentpole these days.
Regardless of your level of Star Wars fandom, “Rogue One” remains a good film. However, I'll tell you when I knew I was in in love: a brief interior shot of Saw's (Forest Whitaker) headquarters, a dusty, cramped hideout filled with desperate and destitute men, that featured a crude wooden dejarik board (for the uninitiated, dejarik is the holographic chess-like game R2-D2 and Chewbacca play in “A New Hope”). The shot does not linger; other than one unfortunate “joke” sequence featuring Ponda Baba and Dr. Evazan, the film never lets its Star Wars fan bona fides get in the way of telling its story. However, the moment stands as a sign. Unlike Disney's first Star Wars effort, a vapid remix of a film that tries its hardest to appeal to the audience via Pavlovian cues, “Rogue One” understands that the way to create a good new Star Wars film is to take the universe that already exists and build on it.
Observe, for example, the film's core relationship, between Jyn (Felicity Jones) and Galen Urso (Mads Mikkelsen): a familial bond, like the one that grounds the original trilogy and underscores Episode VII, but one that eschews the potent father-son rivalry for something softer and more regretful. Or take in Donnie Yen's and Wen Jiang's Chirrut and Baze. Their presence opens up a wealth of speculation about the nature of the Force and the galaxy's geopolitical makeup, and their performances leave you dying to know more about the men's exploits and relationship. Like many of the best Star Wars characters, they're sketched out just enough to allow for the full scale of their adventures to live in your mind.
In fact, all of the main cast members are like this. Some critics panned Rogue One's lack of “fleshed-out” characters, but they're missing the point: like Han Solo or Billy Dee Williams before them, “Rogue One's” characters aren't explained to you. Instead, you get a glimpse into their personal lives by their defining actions. Cassian's (Diego Luna) merciless killing of an informant. Bohdi's whispered tribute to Galen before his destruction. These are new kinds of protagonist for a Star Wars film, and we understand them, even if we don't know them.
Of course, the film's understated and often underrated character work is aided in its cinematic effectiveness by a truly striking visual sense. Not only do Edwards & Co. create new designs and environments (a feature regrettably missing from Episode VII), but they take the series' existing iconography and reinterpret it in beautiful, stunning ways. One of the movie's best visual themes is using a massive sense of scale to portray the seeming impossibility of the Rebels' plight; the film can't go too long without a malignant shot of the Death Star or a Star Destroyer imposing its frame over a doomed world.
And, of course, the action of the film's final act is impeccable, the series' best since the space battle at the end of “Return of the Jedi.” Here, too, “Rogue One” highlights new elements in the familiar geography of a Star Wars space battle to create something familiar, yet additive, capping the sequence in a pulse-pounding and raw Darth Vader scene that leaves you with an adrenaline high as the credits roll. That it does all this through a subtle sheen of the 1970s to provide a cognitive link to “A New Hope” (both via the deleted footage of the old pilots and the '70s-as-hell mustache on Blue Leader) is just another example of an attention to detail that pleases diehard fans like me while providing an unseen but still effective ambiance for the casual viewer.
I could go on. There's so much about the movie, so many little details and broad strokes, that still get me excited to think about and talk about. Instead, I'll just say this: I watch a lot of modern blockbusters, and this is one of the few that plays like a love letter.
Post-script: If I had to pick one thing that I really dislike about “Rogue One” (besides the gratuitous Ponda Baba moment), it would have to be the movie's retcon that the flaw in the Death Star was engineered, rather than an actual design oversight. Not only does the change not make total plot sense (why, if Tarkin knew there was a problem, was he so cautious to use the Death Star in “Rogue One” but not so cautious in “A New Hope”?), but it's also a fanboy-ish “solution” to a problem that didn't exist. The Death Star exhaust port is far more interesting a symbol of dictatorial hubris than it is as a “well actually” moment for Star Wars trivia night.
However, that bit of annoyance doesn't even come close to spoiling the movie.