By John Enfield (Las Vegas, NV)

 

How did Princess Leia get that data tape with the Death Star plans on it in the first place? We’ve been wondering that since 1977. Now, we get to find out in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. No, it wasn’t from Bothan spies. They captured the plans to the second Death Star as seen in Star Wars Episode 6: Return of the Jed‘.

Rogue One works backwards from the very start of Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope all the way back to the childhood of a new character, Jyn Erso, played very well by Felicity Jones to be a tough, cynical girl with serious abandonment issues. Jyn’s younger self is played very impressively by sisters Dolly and Beau Gadsdon. Great find, getting two talented sisters to play the role so that they look enough alike to still seem to be the same character, just at different ages. Her character arc is fairly well developed for an action movie as we get to see her come to not only start trusting others, but to go from a hidden guerilla fighter raised by her father’s friend Saw Gerrera (who becomes a fanatical extremist rebel played on the edge of insanity by Forrest Whitaker), to a full-fledged member of the larger Rebel Alliance. Felicity makes Jyn a believably capable, yet still sympathetic and likable young lady who is a welcome addition to the growing cast of heroines in the Star Wars universe.

In true Star Wars style, Rogue One introduces memorable new characters and weaves them into the larger over-all story of the saga. Another of these new characters is Cassian Andor played with equal parts strength and sensitivity by Diego Luna. Cassian is an experienced rebel who has been tasked with finding a Death Star engineer, Galen Erso, (played in a surprising role by Mads Mikkelsen whose previous roles make him perfect as a character of ambiguous allegiance). I was relieved to see that Cassian, and the other members who come to form the rag-tag band of rebels that the movie ultimately follows, was not made out to be incompetent or foolish in order to elevate the heroine as too many movies do. They do a great job of making each one of the members seem capable of finishing the mission by the final act of the movie.

Of this group, perhaps my favorite is Chirrut Imwe, made captivating by martial artist Donnie Yen. This blind Force monk not only amazes with his fighting skills, but also seems to be able to channel the Force to know more about others than anyone would expect. I loved the positive portrayal of faith in the Force by Chirrut as well as the Erso family and others.

The Khyber crystals, previously only mentioned in some of the Star Wars novels, also get a much deserved important role in this movie as they are revealed to be vital to the production of lightsabers and laser weapons as well as a hint of their deeper significance to believers of the Force. As a big fan of the novels, that scored big points with me.

Thanks to both special effects wizardry and a few fortunate casting choices, they were amazingly able to bring back/introduce (depending on what order you have seen these movies in) several characters from Episodes 4, 5 or 6. Most amazingly, the rather extensive portrayal of Grand Moff Tarkin who was so memorably played by the great actor Peter Cushing in A New Hope. Peter was rather old back in 1977 and passed away many years ago. To bring his character back, they used the very latest in computer generated character technology tested in the Star Wars prequels and perfected over the course of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies. Another notable achievement is the appearance of young Princess Leia voiced convincingly by Ingvild Delia. These CG stand-ins sometimes appear slightly waxy compared to the live-action actors around them, but the voice acting and lifelike animation help pull the trick off well.

While the focus of many reviews has been on the amazing technical feat, kudos are also due to Guy Henry for mimicking Cushing so well that it rivals Ewan MacGregor’s turn of channeling Sir Alec Guinness as the young Obi Wan Kenobi. Other notable voice acting in the film includes James Earl Jones who is fortunately still around to bring Darth Vader to life as the role wouldn’t be the same without him; Alan Tudyk who made an imperial tactical droid stand out from not only its identical counterparts but also in a cast of human heroes with his wonderful near-deadpan delivery of the best jokes in the film tinged with an ever so slight bit of sarcasm; and Anthony Daniels who is essential as C3PO as he’s voiced that wonderful character in almost every Star Wars program ever made.

Equally impressive is the masterful job performed by the editors to bring us the voices and even sometimes the appearances of characters directly from Episode 4 such as Red Leader and Gold Leader, whose footage was edited so well into newly shot footage of Blue Squadron that you have to look closely, and have already seen A New Hope to recognize which is old footage and which is new.

They even did it the old fashioned way by having some Classic Trilogy roles played by new actors who were carefully casted to look as much like the original actors as possible. In some scenes, you can’t tell them apart without stopping to really think about it. Notable achievements in this include Ian McIlhinney as General Dodonna, and Genevieve O’Rielly as Mon Mothma.

The other trick of bringing a character to life, having multiple actors play the same role in different scenes depending on what was called for, is also on display here. The obvious example is Darth Vader. In this case, he is played not only by James Earl Jones for the voice, but also by Spencer Wilder and Daniel Naprous who got to wear the famous suit for some very enjoyable scenes. They also did this for Admiral Raddus who was voiced by Steven Stanton but physically played by Paul Kasey. No doubt, this was done for other characters as well.

As we have come to expect from Star Wars movies, Rogue One is jam packed with amazing visual and audio special effects. All of it seems to hold up well and they continue to astound with their increasing realism in depicting space ships and huge buildings. It’s getting to the point where you can’t tell anymore what is scale model and what is CG.

They managed to mix familiar ship, building, costume and droid designs from the Classic Trilogy with some new ones that are apparently on their last legs from events not shown between the end of Revenge of the Sith and this movie.

The different looking TIE fighters, for example, were a bit strange. Perhaps they were supposed to show the transition from Jedi Starfighters of the Prequels to the more bowtie looking fighters of the Classic Trilogy. The design that caught my attention the most though, was Admiral Krennic’s shuttle, which reminded me of a large version of Luke Skywalker’s T16 Skyhopper. I liked the new U-Wing ship and found its shape changing ability interesting, if a bit unnecessary.

Some of the characters have quite familiar costumes and hair styles from either Episode 3 or 4 and help sell the idea that this story is between the two. One of these transitional designs is shown well by Admrial Krennic, played very interestingly by Ben Mendelshon (I loved his rivalry with Tarkin!) with its cape-like raincoat and all white Imperial uniform.

The music is a bit lackluster and is what is keeping me from giving this movie full stars. It just isn’t memorable, other than the inclusions of familiar themes from other Star Wars movies such as the Imperial March, Princess Leia’s Theme, etc. But unlike the Prequels, there aren’t any truly memorable new musical pieces. In fact, the opening of the movie is shockingly understated musically for a Star Wars movie. Musically, it makes Rogue One feel like a story snuck into the saga rather than a full-fledged chapter of its own. Perhaps this was intentional, but it was a bit of a letdown for me as I loved the new themes introduced by the Prequels and was hoping for some new ones here.

Having played the Lucasarts Dark Forces video game series in the past, I was wondering how they would portray the stealing of the Death Star plans in this movie. It is different, yet has some similarities. The plans are a bit more physically difficult to get to in the movie than they were in the game, even when played on high difficulty, though our heroes have to manage some feats that I remember pulling off as Kyle Katarn. The handoff from our team of heroes to the Alliance in general is also fraught with more peril. Since Kyle just gets picked up by his ally Jan Ors after yanking the plans from a hidden room.

Cassian Andor, Jyn Erso and Baze Malbus (played with passion and a bit of humor by Wen Jiang) are like splintered aspects of Kyle Katarn, the hero you play in the games. Cassian, and to some degree Bohdi Rook (played convincingly in a shell shocked and slightly crazy way by Riz Ahmed) has Kyle’s past as a war hardened veteran who is regretting some of the things he’s had to do for the cause and as in Bohdi’s case, defected from the Empire. Jyn has Kyle’s trauma of being separated from family by the Empire while Baze is the ever-ready, brave gunner like Kyle is, especially in the first game. It could be said that Rey in Episode 7 has Kyle’s arc of a nobody Rebel fighter who discovers that they can become a Jedi. Somehow, Jason Court managed to embody all of this in live action cut scenes and voice overs for the Dark Forces video games. I wonder where he is now.

I won’t spoil the movie, if I can help it, but I will say that Rogue One has a similar feel to it that Star Wars Episode Five: The Empire Strikes Back has of a grim, sometimes sad, gritty war movie with occasional glimpses of humor and hope. It lacks the giddy energy of some other Star Wars movies, but given the story told here, that is as it should be. Though it is not an ‘Episode’ of the saga, it is still a movie that shouldn’t be missed. It manages to bridge Episode 3 and 4 in just as effective a way as the Clone Wars movie and cartoon series did to bridge Episode 2 and 3.

Rating: 4/5

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