Earlier this week, Vox caught some flak for the headline on its review of the new film Rogue One: a Star Wars Story: “This is the first Star Wars movie to acknowledge the whole franchise is about war.”
Yes, obviously Star Wars is about war. It’s right there in the title. But the reviewer, Todd VanDerWerff, was also right: There have been battles throughout the Star Wars films, from the prequels through the original trilogy, and beyond — but where the other films have been mainly swashbuckling escapist fantasy, Rogue One is about the gritty reality of battle on the ground.
Without spoiling it, Rogue One’s story includes a lot of darkness. There are still thrilling heroics, stirring music, and fun characters. But there’s a certain weight here that hasn’t necessarily been present in most of the other films. And that, plus the film’s talented, diverse cast, makes Rogue One a truly unique twist on the familiar format.
Some of that weight comes from the plot, which concerns the attempt by the rebel forces to steal the plans for the Death Star that kick off A New Hope, and its characters, who experience real loss, moral quandaries, and risk.
Our heroine, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) loses her family early on in the film — she sees her mother killed and her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) taken away by the Empire to engineer the Death Star. Raised by anti-imperial extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), as an adult Jyn is busted from jail by the rebels to team with spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to locate a defected imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) who Saw has taken captive, and then later to locate her father and secure the Death Star plans.
Jyn is a complex character, even without the film’s sometimes-clunky script adding bumps to her journey. Jaded by her losses, Jyn outwardly acts like a free agent, but her attitude masks a real desire to make things right. Cassian also bears outward and inward scars from a lifetime in the Rebel forces — a career which includes plenty of moral compromise.
The movie’s secondary characters also come to the film with personal baggage. Jedi monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and rebel Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) lose their place of worship to imperial destruction. Even K-2SO, Rogue One’s scene-stealing droid, has a certain darkness to him. K-2 is a reprogrammed imperial droid, and his need to prove his worth, as well as his and Jyn’s mutual distrust, expresses itself through frank and steely sarcasm.
Another aspect of depth comes courtesy of the film’s stellar production design, which gives the Star Wars universe a detailed, lived-in feel, one that makes the devastation of intergalactic battle all the more keenly felt: A child’s wooden Stormtrooper toy left in the wake of destruction, or a pitcher and two glasses of blue milk on a table just before imperial troops invade Jyn’s home.
The film does have some script problems — unnecessary callbacks to characters from the original trilogy, which include some bizarre motion-capture performances, and the great, enigmatic Whitaker’s mostly wasted plot thread, to name just two. But the film’s diverse core group of characters share a strong chemistry that makes you care deeply about what happens to them, and makes it all the more harrowing when they head into the film’s final battle.
Rogue One pulls off a tricky balance, combining the thrill of spending time in the Star Wars universe, with a different, more grounded take on the films’ overarching conflict that feels very appropriate to the world we live in now. Galactic battles are grand and fun to watch, yes. But they’re also battles, and battles have consequences.