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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is perhaps the riskiest film in the Star Wars saga to date; instead of pulling from the Skywalker Saga and mythological themes, the film is set within the world of espionage and military, while still retaining the spectacle and tone of a Star Wars film. The film is less reliant on the other films and forges much of its own identity, falling less into the “Star Wars formula” and rather expanding the universe. Not everything pays off, but it’s a worthy risk to take, as Rogue One is not only one of the best action movies of the year, but one of the best films in the entire saga.

Set between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode VI: A New HopeRogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a fugitive from the Empire who’s recruited by the Rebellion. When informed that her father Galen (Mads Mikkelson) has information regarding an Imperial super weapon, Erso is joined by Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and wisecracking droid K2-SO (Alan Tudyk) in a mission to unveil this information. Pursued by the villainous Orson Krennic (Ben Mendehlsohn), the rebels must fight to protect the galaxy from a weapon that could tear it completely apart.

To be clear, this feels very much like a Star Wars movie, and doesn’t drastically departure from the original material in the vein of The Dark Knight or Casino Royale, but this feels to be exploring a different side of the universe and offering a new type of story. Although I loved The Force Awakens (I ranked it as my #1 best film of 2015) , it was a film that stuck to a familiar story, while Rogue One offers more blurred morality and grounded storytelling. This is a film that explores the meaning of what heroism truly is, and shows the difference between Rebels and Imperials is more than just uniforms.

This is a well directed movie. Director Gareth Edwards keeps things moving at a near constant pace, which makes the two hour runtime fly by. Although some may complain this compromises the character development, the two leads get the perfect character arcs and the supporting characters get their just amount of screen time to be memorable at least. The film is also shot in a more grounded, street level way, with different types of handheld cinematography techniques seen that have yet to be utilized in the Star Wars universe.

The action is also great, with a lot of hand to hand combat and more intelligently staged scenes than most blockbusters. While the ending is a bit contrived in why everyone is there and can get slightly confusing, there’s a point to each element of the set piece. This is a very lush world, with striking environments and production design that feel completely real and authentic, with CGI used effectively and usefully.

Felicity Jones makes for a compelling lead, and though she lacks the natural charisma that Daisy Ridley possessed in The Force Awakens, she has a solid character arc and makes for an inspiring hero for this journey. However, Diego Luna steals the show as Captain Andor, who’s emotions and story is more subdued, but gives a great energy to the film and proves to be a badass in the action scenes. There’s also a great comedic turn from Alan Tudyk’s scene stealing motion capture performance as K2-SO, a wisecracking droid who gives the film its best laughs.

The rebel team is filled out with Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, and Wen Jiang. Yen proves to be the standout of the entire film as the noble Chirrut Imwe, a common monk who believes in the power of the force, despite not possessing its powers. Yen’s fantastic martial arts skills give the film many of its best moments, and his relationship with Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus gives the film some moments near the end, despite relatively little screen time dedicated to Jiang. Riz Ahmed also serves a great role, and has a surprisingly effective character arc, with Ahmed making the best of each of his scenes.

Ben Mendehlsohn is effective as Krennic, being intimidating and despicable at all the right moments. It’s a rather generic character, but strangely enough, the idea of the Death Star and Empire in general seem to be the real villain of the film, with a faceless menace seemingly endangering our heroes more than any one character. As for the film’s much publicized use of Darth Vader, it’s brilliant. Vader sees very minimal screen time, but is used in the perfect way for what the film requires.

Veteran actors Mads Mikkelson and Forest Whitaker are also strong. While they aren’t in huge roles, the gravitas given by such acclaimed performers gives the film an added urgency and intensity. The entire cast works very well as an ensemble, and this seems to be the first Star Wars film to work purely as an ensemble piece. It’s a talented group of actors, and some great appearances by classic Star Wars characters make for all the more entertaining ride.

The film ties quite heavily into the events of the original film, and despite the film’s impressive ability to differentiate itself from the other films, it offers a different perspective to things we’ve come to know. The more espionage/ military themed film devolves into classic Star Wars by the third act, successfully combining these two types of filmmaking. While the entire journey is great, the last act is where the film really shines, with an emotional and action packed finale that serves as Star Wars at its finest.

However, the film is not without its flaws. The use of a certain classic character through strange means is distracting, and while it makes sense for the story, the CGI effects used feel out of place. There’s also some on the nose dialogue, and while Star Wars has always been a little cheesy, improvements could have been made to heighten the dramatic tension. While there’s great emotional moments, outside of K2-SO there’s not as much humor as you would expect from a Star Wars film, and a dash of comedy could have made for a more entertaining ride.

Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story is without a doubt one of the most entertaining films of the year, and a worthy addition to the saga that sets the stage for more adventures outside the core films. Longtime fans will appreciate how the film ties into the entire saga, and more casual viewers will appreciate how the film retains the classic feel of Star Wars while telling a different type of story. Regardless, it’s a great ride and one of the best and most unique blockbusters of the year. Grade: -A

 

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