Even though Rogue One: A Star Wars Story doesn’t begin with text crawling into the heavens, providing backstory as in the franchise’s main entries (a small mercy, actually), director Gareth Edwards nevertheless demonstrates from the jump that his film will be a throwback to Star Wars’ beginnings, not just in plot but in its presentation, its emotions and its very ambitions. When a spaceship floats slowly through blackness and then Edwards cuts to a wider shot wherein we see the vessel dwarfed by a massive planet and its rings while Michael Giacchino’s score pays homage to John Williams, we’re already being primed to expect awe and grandeur, not flash and sleekness. For the next two hours and change, Edwards never loses touch with that implied mission statement. Rogue One is, in total, a lofty yet smart adventure flick that’s more than lively and stirring enough to become a classic alongside its big brothers in the main series.
As this is the kind of film about which folks can be extra wary of spoilers, let us keep the plot description brief. Rogue One revolves around a loner and a thief named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who is recruited by a Rebel Alliance intelligence officer named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to investigate a bit of intelligence provided by a defector from the Empire named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) that Rook claims came from a source from within the Empire’s newest weapons venture, a scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who happens to be Jyn’s father. That’s merely where things kick off and doesn’t even begin to describe the scope to which the story expands, not to mention the other characters who appear, such as a blind acolyte of the Force and his brutish but wily partner (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen), a sardonic droid voiced by Alan Tudyk and a chilling antagonist who, in Ben Mendelsohn’s peerless, humanizing performance, becomes more threatening as he becomes more pitiable.
George Lucas’ original Star Wars took traditional genres, like samurai movies and Westerns, and riffed on them, layering in aliens, lasers and magic. Rogue One harkens back to this alluring approach but this time around, it’s World War II movies to which Edwards pays tribute, and with far more than lip service. With their blatant anti-fascism and bad guys decked out in Nazi-inspired regalia, the Star Wars films have always borne reminders of the evils of the Third Reich. Here, though, the galaxy across which the film takes place offer endless variants of terrain so that Rogue One may find not just thematic but visual backdrops akin to each of the Second World War’s main theaters of combat. The desert hideout of hardline militant rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and his crew could easily be the Northern Africa of Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo, while a thrilling, close quarters skirmish in a small trading outpost recalls the French village combat scenes of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. Finally, the massive and masterfully staged climactic battle takes place on a planet of tropical jungles and beaches. As mechanized carnage tears its way through palm-strewn paradise, it’s hard not to recall the Guadalcanal of The Thin Red Line.
Of course, war never happens without politics and Rogue One’s major thematic thrust concerns the moral imperative—and potential moral compromise—of political engagement. Though we are initially bludgeoned with the platitude that “Rebellions are built on hope,” Edwards and the screenwriters quickly set about examining the particulars of that hope, focusing on those citizens and soldiers whose existences begin where the slogans end. Jyn at first claims to represent the downtrodden lower classes whose plights are likely to be equally miserable whether under the flag of the Empire or that of the Alliance; “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up,” she says. Like many in our modern world, where half of eligible voters stay home on election day, she regards political opinions as a luxury. The more she sees, though, the more she believes. Not everyone can keep their head down, especially when the tyrants are dropping bombs directly on you. Later, another character, as if in response to Jyn’s earlier assertions, says, “We don’t all have the luxury of deciding when and where we care about something.” By the time we come back around to “Rebellions are built on hope,” the sentiment means more for all the wear and tear it’s gained.
Still, even as we may hope for the best, as the saying goes, we must prepare for the worst. That’s a pragmatic idea, yes, but also an ethical one. As a member of the shady intelligence arm of the rebellion, Andor represents a murkier side of the Alliance than we may have ever seen before. He acknowledges that he’s done things of which he’s not proud; we even see some of them. Yet, the film gives cause to ponder, what is personal compromise when compared to justice for all? If you’re going to dedicate yourself to a higher ideal, it’s only natural that you’re going to have to sacrifice some things on an individual level. It’s a tricky and unsettling bit of “means to an end” justification that, to its credit, Rogue One takes seriously in terms of both character and karma.
Interesting as these subjects are, Rogue One doesn’t consist of folks sitting around discussing morality and politics. For that, we’re lucky. It’s a cliché at this point to describe a crowd-pleasing film as “rousing” but the world applies literally in this case. It’s the best Star Wars movie in nearly 40 years and it just may make you feel like standing up, cheering and wiping the tears from your eyes.