When news broke in 2012 that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm, some fans worried that Disney would “Disneyfy” the Star Wars franchise by making it too kid-friendly. After all, despite George Lucas’ protestations that Star Wars was made for kids, the original six had some very dark moments. Lucas even consulted a psychologist to make sure the big revelation in “The Empire Strikes Back” would not scar young children (the psychologist concluded most kids simply wouldn’t believe that Vader was Luke’s father). Would Disney dare to tell a story with shades of gray and dark undertones?
Rogue One proves such fears unfounded. Rogue One is perhaps the least “Disneyfied” film ever released by Disney. Some of the protagonists engage in morally questionable actions and not everyone lives happily ever after.
Rogue One takes place very shortly before the fourth Star Wars film, A New Hope (hint: it might be worth rewatching Episode IV before seeing Rogue One). The Rebel Alliance learns about the Death Star from Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and sends Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Rebel operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and the sarcastic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to investigate. They discover that Erso’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is one of the top engineers working on the Death Star. He offers to leak the Death Star plans to the Rebels (yes, the same plans that R2-D2 delivers to the Rebels in A New Hope).
The most impressive thing about Rogue One is its tone. As The Economist notes, the Rebellion in Rogue One is “a messier business involving guerilla combat, collateral damage, squabbling factions and unheroic deaths.” This is a far cry from in “A New Hope,” which depicted the Rebels as a ragtag group of idealists. Yet, over the course of “Rogue One,” the Rebellion morphs into the one we saw in “A New Hope.” Yet, although Rogue One adopts the trappings of a war film, it allows the characters to overcome the cynicism that usually dominates such movies. As the Rebels learn to work together and succeed in early missions, they begin to rediscover hope. By the end of the film, the protagonists are acting every bit as heroically as a Luke and Leia. It’s a clever way to combine the grit and darkness of a war film alongside the fun and adventure of a Star Wars movie.
This is a tough balancing act. Since the end of the Vietnam War, most war movies have focused on the horrors of war and eschewed any sense of adventure or idealism. Saving Private Ryan refuses to romanticize the crusade against Nazism, even though World War II holds a special place in American mythology. On the other hand, other pop culture franchises have tried to make their versions of war films, but they have generally failed to capture the chaos and brutality of war. Director Joss Whedon incorporated many war film tropes in Avengers, but the alien attack on New York City lacks any sense of urgency or desperation. That Rogue One feels comfortable as both a war film and a Star Wars film is a testament to director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.
Disney CEO Bob Iger promised that Rogue One isn’t political, and indeed Rogue One eschews explicit political analogies. However, like the Original Trilogy, the film engages with ideas and imagery of contemporary politics. In Return of the Jedi, George Lucas loosely based the Ewoks on the Vietcong. But for the size of the trees, the traps the Ewoks used against the Empire could very well have been used against American GIs in the forests of Vietnam. As blogger Darren Mooney notes, Rogue One updates the Star Wars visual vocabulary for the War on Terror. Initially, the Rebels come across as intergalactic terrorists. There’s a scene on the desert planet Jedha in which Rebels ambush an Imperial convoy in a crowded market that looks like it could have come straight out of The Hurt Locker (but for the aliens and Stormtrooper armor, of course). Meanwhile, the bureaucratic bickering amongst the Imperials should be familiar to anybody who has observed the U.S. government’s attempts to counter terrorism.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how Rogue One approaches continuity. This is, after all, a prequel to a film released in 1977, and it ties in pretty well despite the 40-year gap. I was worried that Disney would include too much fan service and callbacks to A New Hope that didn’t serve the story. Fortunately, most of those references make sense in context. For example, the production team went to great lengths to recreate Grand Moff Tarkin in CGI (the original actor, Peter Cushing, passed away in 1994). Tarkin serves as a foil for Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the primary antagonist in the film. Seeing Tarkin and Krennic jockeying for power adds a welcome layer of complexity and character depth. There is some gratuitous fan service in Rogue One, especially near the end, but nothing as distracting as constant references and in-jokes in The Force Awakens.
As other reviewers have noted, the film’s biggest weakness is the characters. The characters are all engaging, but they exist as broad archetypes and lack defined arcs (aside from Jyn and Cassian). As much as I would have like to have seen more of these characters, I think they work well enough for the film. After all, this is a war movie, not a Shakespearean character study like the prequels. As in most war movies, Rogue One gives each character few personality quirks, a bit of backstory, and one or two memorable moments. The characters serve primarily as a vehicle through which to explore the conflict. Chirrut Îmwe and Bodhi Rook will never be as memorable or as well developed as an Obi-Wan Kenobi or Finn, but they also don’t need to be. Besides, how many of us remember the names of the characters from Black Hawk Down or The Deer Hunter?
Rogue One isn’t a “great” film, but it is a very entertaining one. This is the first live-action Star Wars movie without a Skywalker, without Jedi, without a John Williams soundtrack, and without an opening crawl… yet it still feels like Star Wars.* Or, more accurately, it feels like the way a kid playing with Star Wars action figures might fill in the gaps between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, which is appropriate because Edwards described making Rogue One as akin to playing in the “world’s greatest toy set.” There’s a sense of freedom in not being weighed down by all the expectations of the franchise (something The Force Awakens couldn’t entirely escape). In short, Rogue One gives me hope that Disney can continue making Star Wars movies long after it concludes the saga of the Skywalkers.
* The live-action Ewok movies also broke these Star Wars conventions, but those films were made-for-TV, never shown in theaters.
This review originally appeared on Legendarium Media.