Rogue One is conspicuously “a Star Wars story,” not cut from the same mold as The Force Awakens. But from this lifetime Star Wars fan, that may in fact make it better than (some of) its predecessors. In fact, I found myself emotionally more connected to the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her team of misfit castoffs than I did to any set of characters since… Return of the Jedi thirty-plus years ago.
[Editor’s note: this is about stealing the plans for the first Death Star. If that doesn’t make sense to you, you shouldn’t be reading this yet!]
Here, Jyn is the daughter of Galen Erso, research scientist for the Empire who designs the Death Star, and Lyra Erso (Valene Kane), whose one dying wish is that her daughter recognize the Force. While we have a typical Disney “orphaning” process in the first stanza, the next stage flips us forward fifteen years to the full-blown conflict between the Rebel Alliance in its fledgling, pre-New Hope success and the evil onslaught of “Lord” Vader and his evil Empire.
In the present, Rebellian intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) makes Han Solo look like Snow White – Andor clearly shoots first, potentially having done worse work on behalf of freedom. Opposite Andor in capacity, but not necessarily in mentality, is Ben Mendelssohn’s Orson Krennic, whose Empire focus has him issue lines about how sometimes the presence of fear must predate freedom. [Who says this film doesn’t have a political feel? Oh, wait, the Alliance versus Empire saga has always had an eye to history. Check out the landing on Normandy played out in a galaxy far away by the end of the film… complete with WWII era helmets.]
While Jyn struggles to figure out who she is, she’s joined by two former Jedi Temple guards, Chirrut Imwe (the great Donnie Chen), a blind Jedi follower, and his sidekick, Baze (Jiang Wen). The fact that their temple can no longer be guarded highlights that they have in fact failed – that some might see they have already lost. Thanks to their mentality and banter, they’ll provide the Force or no Force debate, with the blind man who can see better than the seeing serving up helpings of Yoda and Obi Won, while his mercenary friend believes (for much of the film) only in his blasters and brute strength. Rebellion or no, these two recognize the Empire as evil, and stand against it – but they recognize something different in Jyn. The human team is rounded out by The Night Before’s Riz Ahmed, who plays a defector from the Empire, Bodhi Rook, seeking his own set of redemption.
Jyn may be the one most likely catalyst to our story, thanks to a female protagonist with daddy issues, but she is hardly the last character in this film seeking redemption. To be clear, if you are a Star Wars fan, then watching the film is like watching Titanic – you know what is going to happen here, you know what the tragic future for many is, and yet, you’re gripped by the power of the Gareth Edwards-directed visuals and the story of true freedom fighters.
This is only the second movie in 2016 to make me want to stand up and cheer at the end (the other, Hacksaw Ridge). This is the one that makes me want to highlight (again) for my children that in the end, the good guys always win … but that along the way, there are sacrifices made by brave men and women. Please don’t get me wrong: the movie made me laugh outloud (thank you, Alan Tudyk) and cry (here’s …looking… at you, Imwe) but it’s deeply provoking as it speaks to war, peace, justice, power, faith, and the practice of all of them. I’d say more – but I promised a spoiler-free review.
Just go see it. And then ask yourself, what do you believe in enough to die for? Are you willing to live for it, too?