Merging nostalgia with fresh faces, and old-fashioned adventure with next-generation computer animation, Rogue One is not just the best Star Wars movie since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, but, with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, one of the two best science-fiction films of the decade.
Though it’s embarrassingly superior to George Lucas’s three prequels, and even noticeably better than last year’s The Force Awakens, Rogue One is, ironically, not considered part of the “canon,” but is instead an “anthology” film. (There are no scrolling opening credits, but John Williams’ original score is used sporadically.) It’s set just before the events of the 1977 Star Wars and has few overlapping characters, but its heart beats with almost more Force than one screen can hold.
The story is quite simple, but, wasn’t the same true for the original trilogy? Jyn (the excellent and – forgive me – stunningly beautiful Felicity Jones) hasn’t seen her imprisoned father (Mads Mikkelsen) in 15 years, since she was a young girl. But, having grown up tough and proud, she doesn’t seem to care. “I like to think he’s dead,” she says. But, when confronted with the fact that he is both alive and the one person who can lead the Rebel Alliance to the plans of the new Death Star (which he was forced to design), she jumps at the chance to reunite with him and deal a blow to the Empire.
Unbeknownst to the Emperor and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones again), Jyn’s father designed the Death Star with a flaw. Of course, that’s the flaw that Luke Skywalker exploited. But we never knew exactly how the rebels got the plans, until now.Director Gareth Edwards exhibits a solid understanding of tone, pacing and performance. Though the action is too frenetic at times, not allowing for cinematic peaks and valleys, it’s rarely overwhelming and always imaginative – though, if you see it in 3-D, it might be a bit too much. (I recommend seeing it in its native 2-D.)
Places and people could be better explained, as locations are confusing upon first watch and many of the supporting characters are vapid MacGuffins, at least for the Star Wars layperson. But competent performances by Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, the underused Forest Whitaker and the pitch-perfect Alan Tudyk (as the voice of the newest robot, K-2SO) allow one to forget the flaws and revel in this fun and immersive extravaganza. Perhaps Edwards and the writing team felt less pressure than their Force Awakens predecessors, or maybe they just grasped what made the original trilogy work so well. Admittedly, this can be viewed as simply another rehash of old stories and themes, but hash is rarely this tasty.
The film’s most amazing technical and creative achievement must be seen to be believed. If you’re a Star Wars junkie, you may already have read that a character from the original film is resurrected, almost literally, via CGI. But for you casual fans, I won’t reveal too many details. I will simply caution you to fasten your mental and spiritual seatbelts because the sight might just shake you to your core and cause you to question the future of animation – and acting itself.
The filmmakers’ decision to include this character is fraught with moral and professional peril, despite the permission of the actor’s estate. Actors have been digitally manipulated before, both by motion capture and “youthenizing,” as in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow even tweaked old footage of Laurence Olivier to have him “play” a supporting role in 2004. But we’ve never seen anything like the brave new world of Rogue One. As for me, I’m both amazed and disturbed, but I’m also sort of looking forward to Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart’s new film in a couple of years. I guess we all knew where technology was leading us. I just didn’t know it would be here so soon.
So, thanks to a film set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, our future is now – and it is, in every sense of the word, terrific.