Star Wars fans have waited for thirty-three years for a good prequel. Finally, we got one.
Look, if you enjoyed Episodes I, II, and III, that's great. More power to you; please continue to enjoy them. I will not use this review to bash the prequel trilogy, I think there's plenty of that on the internet already. There are aspects of the prequels that I do like (the music, for example), but I can't enjoy them in the same way that I enjoyed Rogue One.
Rogue One, like The Force Awakens, is a good film, but it has too many flaws that hold it back from being great. At first, I was slightly hesitant about seeing this movie; after all, it's not part of the main saga, and the news of last-minute reshoots worried me. The good reviews helped assuage my fears, though I always prefer to see a film for myself and make up my own mind. As stated, Rogue One is a good film, and I enjoyed it. As usual, I'll list my pros and cons.
Before I get into it, a little about my fanboy cred: I've been a HUGE Star Wars fan ever since I was a young boy. My parents have a home video of me going on about Luke Skywalker. I actually got to meet Mark Hamill last month at a charity benefit. (Click here for the full story, and don't forget to upvote my post.) I also create Star Wars fan art, which you can buy from my store. (Get it while you still can; a couple of products have already been taken down.)
Please note that the following will contain light spoilers, so consider yourself warned. Nothing major; if you haven't seen the movie, but you've seen the trailers and watched YouTube reviews, you've most likely already seen everything I'm going to talk about.
- The action. At its core, Rogue One is just a fun, action movie. There are three notable action set pieces, and the final act is one long battle on a beach/in space. It's probably the best battle we've seen yet in a Star Wars movie, and the first time it really felt like a real war with real life or death stakes.
- The art direction. The filmmakers opted for the dirty, used future aesthetic of the original trilogy, and it helps tie this movie together with the rest. The sets looked lived in and the ships looked like they'd been flown before. The attention to detail is meticulous, too. From the decor of the Rebel base on Yavin right down to the reddish eye pieces of Vader's helmet, it doesn't look like anything was overlooked.
- The CGI. The CGI in this movie is (almost) completely integrated. (More on that in my Cons section.) The vehicles and droids look like real objects in this world. I was actually surprised to find out that they didn't use models for the AT-ATs and AT-STs but instead used CGI. Bravo.
- The acting. Everyone turns in an excellent performance, and you really believe these characters exist in this world. The best performances, in my opinion, were from Mads Mikkelson, Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and Alan Tudyk (more on him, later). If there was a weak link, I couldn't identify it.
- K2SO. My favorite new character, by far, was the droid K2SO, portrayed by the underrated Alan Tudyk. He's like a smart ass version of Threepio. He's got basically all the best lines in the movie, and I read that Tudyk ad-libbed a lot of them. I expect a bunch of K2SO Halloween costumes next year.
- The Easter Eggs. There's fan service in this movie, but not too much. The Easter Eggs are blink-and-you-miss-it fun for the die hard fans, but obscure enough that the casual fans will just keep on enjoying the movie. If you're going to do fan service, this is the way to do it.
- The world building. Rogue One's biggest contribution to the Star Wars legacy might be that it answers a question plaguing nerds for almost forty years now: why would the Empire create a weapon with such an easily exploitable weakness? Of course, plugging up this plot hole creates several more, but we won't talk about that here. The white hat/black hat lines are blurred a bit, too, making the conflict more realistic. The Rebels, the good guys, do some bad things. Certain subjects of the Empire do very heroic things. Life is almost never black and white, so the blurring of the lines add to the realism. Rogue One also explores the workings and the bureaucracy of the Empire, which hadn't really been done before. It shows a labor camp, Vader's sanctuary, and of course, the data center. In the OT, the Empire just kind of shows up. Rogue One shows the Empire's reach and power centers unlike any movie prior, and why the Empire should be feared.
- Darth Vader. Speaking of fear, Darth Vader is terrifying in this movie. He's only in two scenes, and probably only has about seven minutes of screen time, but boy, does he make an impression. Everyone's talking about his hallway scene, and for good reason. He's like an unstoppable slasher villain. Rogue One shows why Vader's skill and ruthlessness should be feared.
Rogue One is enjoyable, but it's not without its flaws. Some are small, but some are major. This being a review, I'll talk about them now.
- Prequelitis. Rogue One is a prequel, and therefore suffers from the same problem as every other prequel, Star Wars or not. Tension is automatically broken because the audience already knows what comes next. We know the squadron will succeed in obtaining the plans. We know that any characters in the original trilogy are safe from being killed. The filmmakers do a good job focusing on new characters to build up as much tension as they can, but ultimately prequels will always suffer from this problem.
- The characterizations. Though the acting was superb, I don't think we got enough from the characterizations of the main cast. The new characters were basically stock characters painted in broad strokes, so we didn't get to know them as well as we should have to care deeply about them. The reason Star Wars has lasted as long as it has is the fantastic characters from the OT. This is something Episode VII built on quite well. I think Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe, and Rey are great, memorable characters. Rogue One, with the exception of K2SO, didn't really introduce any characters who I think will stand the test of time. (Though I may be proven wrong.) There were hints of intrigue, but a hint is not enough for an event movie like this.
- The uncanny valley. There are two characters in this movie that are CGI reconstructions of actors from the original movie. One has been dead for twenty years, and the other is now forty years older. The only option to put them in the movie was to use CGI doubles. I may be in the minority here, but I didn't like it. I thought the CGI looked amazing, but it's not quite there yet. The human brain can pick up on the slightest nuance, and it took me out of the movie when the CGI humans appeared.
- The tentacle monster. Why was this scene in the movie? It did nothing to advance the plot, and it was just weird. The editors should have cut it out.
- The pacing/editing. At points, the film feels rushed as the heroes are bouncing from one planet to the next. Then, it slows down for about 40 minutes in the second act, only to pick up again in the final battle. I think most of the pacing issues are due to the last minute reshoots and edits, and the problems could have probably been fixed with a bit more time.
- The music. John Williams is sorely missed. Michael Giacchino does a fine job for the time limit he had to score this movie, but none of the music is very memorable. Williams' absence proves just how crucial he is to the Star Wars "feel."
Final verdict: Rogue One is entertaining, and worth your money if you're a Star Wars fan. If you're a hardcore Star Wars fan, I think you'll love it. If you're just a casual fan, go see it anyway. It's a fun time at the movies.
Story: ★★½ of 5
Action: ★★★★★ of 5
VFX/Art: ★★★★½ of 5
Overall: ★★★ of 5