CinemaFanatic’s review published on Letterboxd:
COUNTDOWN TO EPISODE IX #8
After being in stasis for a decade, Disney revived the franchise with The Force Awakens. With The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, we would have the sequel trilogy that had been in demand since 1983. However, Disney had bigger plans than that. While there was no doubt that the new trilogy would make boatloads of money, no company would spend $4 billion to buy a studio for the film rights and not try to get as much money out of it as they can.
Along with a new trilogy, Disney made plans for spin-off films that revolve around characters not having to do with the Skywalker story. The first of these is Rogue One, which is a direct prequel to the original Star Wars. Followed by these were a Solo film and The Mandalorian on Disney+. While the latter managed to win over fans, Solo was a financial dud and has left the development of other spin-offs on hold. A Boba Fett film and a trilogy by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss got canned, and there's a lot of uncertainty over Rian Johnson's plans for his own trilogy (especially after his decisions with The Last Jedi).
When I first heard of this film and the other spin-offs, I was very skeptic. As much as I love Star Wars, I thought that making other films outside of the sequel trilogy sounded more like Disney's attempt to milk the franchise for all it's worth. While this does seem like the case three years later except for The Mandalorian (which is quite good), Rogue One did show me that having Star Wars spin-offs wasn't necessarily a bad thing. While I didn't think this was a story that needed to be told at first, every time I saw the trailers for Rogue One, I gradually became more enthusiastic. And it really paid off in the end.
Unlike many years before then like with the prequel trilogy, Rogue One takes place right before the events of A New Hope. In this film, we get to see how the Death Star plans were stolen. We even find out why the Death Star had such an easily exploitable weakness, something some fans had questioned for decades. Some characters from the original trilogy do make an appearance, but they only serve as either supporting characters or cameos. Instead, we get a new set of characters. But seeing as there isn't a sequel to this film (outside of A New Hope, of course), you might not want to get too attached to these characters.
While the Rebel Alliance is growing in force, the Galactic Empire still has a very strong hold on the galaxy and is developing a super-weapon, the Death Star, under the supervision of director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and creator Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a pilot who defected from the Empire, seeks out Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) to give him a message from Galen. Galen's daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), is freed from a labor camp by the Rebels and is tasked with rescuing her father so they can learn more information about the Death Star. She is accompanied by Rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the re-programmed Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk through motion capture). Along the way, they meet two stragglers, the blind Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).
Rogue One isn't your typical Star Wars movie. For the most part, the other Star Wars films were straight-forward stories about good vs. evil. The Rebels and Jedi represented the Light Side, while the Empire and Sith represented the Dark Side. Rogue One, on the other hand, is not so black and white. This is a straight-up war movie, though the PG-13 rating does keep it from going into Saving Private Ryan territory. While the Rebels may be fighting to free the galaxy from the tyranny of the Empire, they aren't above doing things that are morally questionable. They give out kill orders and send spies or assassins. This is demonstrated when Cassian kills an informant to avoid detection and is tasked with killing Galen if need be. Having a Star Wars film with more moral ambiguity made for a very refreshing concept.
Along with the tone of the film, Rogue One has a few things that set it apart from the other films. Rogue One is the first film to not feature an opening crawl. While we still get the trademark tagline "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," we never get to hear the Star Wars opening theme or any words explaining the premise of the film. There are also no homages or "nostalgia moments" in the film like with The Force Awakens. However, it does share some of their themes and motifs like the hope, friendship and faith. Most of the characters in this film go through their own personal struggles.
Most of the performances in this film are good. Felicity Jones as Jyn made for a decent protagonist, being a strong female character with a sense of humanity rather than being one just for the sake of it. She is well matched by Diego Luna, who plays the somewhat rogue-ish warrior in the sense that Han Solo was. Among the other characters, K-2SO and Chirrut Îmwe were standouts. K-2SO is basically an upgraded version of C-3PO. While a beloved character, C-3PO is known for trying to avoid danger and can at times be overbearing for the characters around him. K-2, on the other hand, is hilarious and steals the show in every scene he's in. Donnie Yen, who is most well known for the Ip Man trilogy, makes for a very fine addition. Despite being blind, he knows how to throw down when needed and is also a strong believer in the Force. Having a fighter who, despite not being a Jedi, believes in the mystical power of the Force, made for a nice change. The rest of the cast is fine, but Forest Whitaker was underused and Ben Mendelsohn made for an unmemorable villain.
There are plenty of appearances from characters in previous films. Out of them, Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader are the most prominent in supporting roles. With James Earl Jones returning to voice the role, the few scenes we get with the Dark Lord are great. The ending scene of the film perfectly reminds us that Vader is a force to be reckoned with. As for Tarkin, with Peter Cushing being long dead, the role fell to Guy Henry with CGI put over his face to make him look like Cushing. While Henry makes a perfect impersonation of the late actor, the methods of bringing Tarkin to life were unethical (I'll get to that in a minute). C-3PO, R2-D2 and Princess Leia (with CGI-makeup) make brief cameos. Jimmy Smits and Genevieve O'Reilly, whom originally appeared in Revenge of the Sith (though the latter's role was cut from that film), reprise their roles as Bail Organa and Mon Mothma in minor roles.
The production values are really good. Like the originals and The Force Awakens, we see plenty of practical effects and real sets with visual effects only being used when needed. The cinematography, particularly when it comes to shots of the Death Star and the planets, is breathtaking. The visuals in this film for the most part are really good. However, one problem with them is in regards to Grand Moff Tarkin.
First off, the way that a CGI face moves or reacts is so unnatural that it's easy to tell apart from a real face. Second, there's the fact that it meant bringing in the face of a dead actor. While Tarkin may have needed to appear in a story that revolves around the first Death Star, applying the face of a actor who is deceased feels unethical. I think The Washington Post put it best when they said that it was "not a simulation, but an approximation of a simulation—a dead character portrayed by a living actor inhabiting not the character, but imitating the dead actor." Using actual makeup instead of digital animation to make Henry at least resemble Cushing would have been preferable.
For the first time in a Star Wars movie, John Williams is not the composer. This time, we have Michael Giacchino. While the score doesn't have that "Williams touch," with the use of some of Williams's themes, Giacchino manages to at least make a soundtrack that sounds like Star Wars. Seeing as John Williams will be retiring from Star Wars after The Rise of Skywalker, I wouldn't mind him taking the mantle in future films.
Rogue One could have very easily been a cash grab for Star Wars. However, despite my issues with the CGI on Tarkin and a few other elements, it proved to be one of the more unique films in this long-running franchise. While bringing in some of the old-fashioned style of the series, it also brings something new to the table. If we keep getting spin-offs of this quality, I wouldn't mind having some more of them. Granted, with the way Disney has been handling their situation as well as the failure of Solo, that doesn't seem to be the case. Oh well, at least we have The Mandalorian, which also felt very much like Star Wars in the way Rogue One was.