The most moving moments in the history of Star Wars are always the darkest. The end of The Empire Strikes Back and the deaths of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda are a few examples on a much longer list. Thankfully, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story understands that and more. It’s a movie that nails what it means to be Star Wars in seemingly every way, and it’s not afraid to scare the bejeezus out of a few kids to get there.
Because Rogue One is dark. There’s death, there’s destruction, there’s emotion, and there’s struggle. Not everyone is going to make it out okay, and yet, at the end of the film, somehow it’s all worth it. That’s because the darkness is balanced with the familiar iconography and tone of Star Wars, resulting in a film that gives its audience a truly fulfilling experience.
We all knew the story, well before the movie was even announced: Rebels steal the plans to the Death Star, which Princess Leia will eventually put into R2-D2. We already know how the movie ends, but director Gareth Edwards uses its clear, direct path to instantly suck the audience in. At each step, new characters are introduced, new challenges are presented, and we’re showered in glorious Star Wars easter eggs. Things rarely let up until the final credits.
The relatively uncomplicated structure also helps the movie’s pacing. We see what’s happening with the Rebels, then we see what’s happening with the Imperials. There’s exposition, but not a lot of filler, and those strands regularly link with gritty, handheld, boots-on-the-ground action that gives the audience a more human view of the galaxy. It’s a Star Wars story, but on the street level.
Rogue One’s characters, on the other hand, run the gamut from instantly iconic to disappointing. There are probably 10 major new characters, depending on your definition of “major.” The hero is Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. She’s the focal point of everything and yet, despite having the most time to develop, the audience’s connection with her ebbs and flows. Her relationship with her father (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is a highlight, but how she goes from there to a powerful leader isn’t quite developed. She’s a great fighter at the start, but she seems to forget that towards the end. It’s almost as if she’s several different characters rolled into one, and it’s hard to get a grip on.
Jyn’s main ally, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is similar in that same way. Like Jyn, he’s given plenty of scenes to explain why he acts the way he does, yet we feel a little ambiguous toward him. He talks about his emotions, but we only see them on occasion. Both characters are worth cheering for, but they’re not the real standouts.
Those are a bit further down the roster, and include Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Like all the best Star Wars characters, the pair, friends who join Jyn’s crew along the way, feel like they have an incredible history we don’t yet know, and it helps make their friendship feel real and strong. They’re the perfect example of characters you don’t get to know much about, so all you want is more of them.
But K-2SO is the real star of Rogue One. The Imperial droid played by Alan Tudyk is by far one of the best things in the film. His dry sense of humor and brutal honesty are like an electric shock to the movie every single time he’s on screen. He’s the antithesis of Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, a character from The Clone Wars animated series whose appearance in Rogue One was much anticipated, but who serves little purpose in the movie except as a plot point.
Over on the Imperial side, there’s Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). He’s a mostly worthy adversary in the film, but he never really gets the “wow” moments you expect from a Star Wars bad guy. He is, however, in some “wow” scenes thanks to characters like Darth Vader appearing alongside him. Nevertheless, Krennic’s presence in the film never really inspires fear.
While the characters can be a mixed bag, the technical aspects of the film are not. The effects in Rogue One are outstanding. The costumes and creature work are stupendous. And though Michael Giacchino’s score doesn’t use as much of John Williams’ original score as fans may like, it serves the story well. Cinematographer Greig Fraser also deserves a mention, because whether it’s a sweeping vista or a close-up action scene, everything about the film is beautiful. (Well, almost everything—in a few instances that are too spoiler-y to explain, sometimes Rogue One’s visual effects are quite jarring. However, their ambition overshadows a less-than-seamless integration.)
Still, like a lot of Star Wars films, minor flaws kind of melt away, especially when you get to the third act, and Rogue One is no exception. The actual stealing of the plans is a rousing finale, with lots of moving parts, plenty of drama, and varied action. Even when individual moments feel a tad underwhelming, the film’s velocity—and the way it nails what make Star Wars so wonderful—carries you through so even as you leave the theater you’ll think about when you’re going to see it again.
But as you leave, you may also start to wonder something. The film has so many surprises and winks to the rest of the franchise—are all those fan moments of excitement and recognition masking the film’s other flaws? If you’re a Star Wars fan, it’s hard to say definitively when you’re on one side or the other, but I do feel the characters, pacing, and story are engaging without them. Hopefully the many connections to the other films—and there are a lot of them—act more as sprinkles on top.
Either way, while Rogue One has a few problems, it ultimately comes together nicely. The stakes and consequences for the characters give it a real emotional anchor, and you’ll marvel at how dense every frame is packed with (for lack of a better word) Star Wars-ness. Sure, not every character is a classic, but some of them are, and the way this story leads into A New Hope is delightful. Like its predecessors, Rogue One is a Star Wars movie we’re going to be watching for a long time.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in the US this Friday, December 16.