Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ★★★★½

With the release of the Star Wars prequel trilogy between 1999 and 2005, the saga took on the taint of varying quality. But say what you will about how good (or not) those three films were, they were firmly part of a single story, that of the Skywalker family, to the point that they were numbered in series with the original trilogy of films. I never expected to get more Star Wars films after 2005's Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, so when The Force Awakens was released in theatres last year it felt monumental, like something special. At the same time, knowing that Disney was set to churn out (in their words) "a Star Wars movie every year," I was understandably excited yet apprehensive about that magic wearing off, that Star Wars would become another Marvel machine that we go to every year and enjoy but that never feels significant. I still have hope that such magic will continue to flow like the Force through the upcoming "saga" films, the as-yet untitled episodes VIII (2017) and IX (2019), but if the rest of these standalone A Star Wars Story titles are as good as Rogue One, there is little worry about getting franchise burnout.

While not technically a Star Wars Saga entry — it doesn't feature the famous opening text crawl or an episode number — Rogue One is firmly a part of the story of that saga. Functioning as episode 3.75, roughly, it begins in the days before the original 1977 film, A New Hope, and ends seemingly moments or hours before that film begins. Familiar faces abound on both sides of the war, and the filmmakers here have gone to remarkable effort to ensure that Rogue One believably works as an immediate prequel. Modern technology aside, the practical aesthetic of the film (including the in-world technology), has a retro feel in keeping with that of A New Hope. Old characters appear, and whether through reprisal, cgi rendering (this one will be divisive) or the use of actual footage from the '77 film (this one should work for everyone), they plant a film that focuses on new characters in a very familiar world. Marvel has claimed that all its properties are connected, but it is Star Wars that is making good on that premise, taking original characters from its Clone Wars animated TV series and bringing them onto the big screen. While Rogue One (and the upcoming Han Solo origin film) may not whet the appetites of fans longing for stories from corners of the galaxy completely unconcerned with characters we've come to know, it certainly proves there are stories worth telling on the periphery of the main saga.

Rogue One's heroine, vagabond and criminal Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is shades of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, but still a protagonist of her own kind. Not an idealist or an opportunist, she is more of a survivor, trying to keep as out of the way as possible while war rages on around her. But it is her personal connection to the Empire's ultimate weapon (her father, an Imperial scientist, helped develop it) that draws her into the fight. Rogue One compiles a team of fighters from various walks of life and with various motivations: a rebellion fighter and his droid companion, an Imperial pilot turned traitor, two former guards of the now defunct Jedi temple, and brings them together for a single purpose. Star Wars has long been about individuals seeking their place in a larger world, and in the grand scheme of the Star Wars universe the story of this group is one of definitive contribution. This film doesn't have an opening crawl, but it is literally the story described in the opening crawl of A New Hope.

I'm reminded of the scene from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in which Treebeard the ent says to the hobbits that this war is not his kind's to fight. Merry responds that "you're part of this world." To stand by in the face of oppression is to take the side of the oppressor. The prequels and especially The Clone Wars series has complicated the notion of good and evil within the Star Wars universe, adding welcome shades of grey. But there is little room for complexity when it comes to a planet-destroying superweapon that is not just threatened but brought to fruition. It is no accident that allusions comparing the Death Star to the atomic bomb abound in Rogue One. The word that comes up repeatedly in the film is "hope." Rebellions are built on it, as are tales of unlikely heroes facing insurmountable power. All the world's most prominent epic myths have this idea at their core. The film's themes of courage, sacrifice, hope, connection, and tragedy place Rogue One firmly in the mythic pantheon that Star Wars has always occupied.

And damn if the last hour (and especially the last scene) isn't near-perfect.

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