Review: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is a war movie built around the proverbial ragtag team.

Rogue One, the first Star Wars  spin-off film, opened last night. There apparently has been a lot of speculation by some fans about where in the Star Wars timeline the story is set. The movie makes it clear early on, then starts dropping hints, which is an odd thing to do after, as I indicated earlier in this sentence, they make it clear early on.

Late in the proceedings they use the word “hope” with just enough emphasis that you pay extra attention to it. Then they do it again. Then we hear the word uttered by a character from a previous Star Wars movie. I'd say the full title of that film, but then I'd receive angry letters for not putting in a spoiler warning.

Aw, what the hell. SPOILER ALERT: The movie is Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, and the new flick is essentially Star Wars: Episode III and a Half – Rogue One. END SPOILER ALERT.

I won't reveal which character makes an appearance, but I will tell you that the filmmakers use CGI to make the actor look young and slim and rosy-cheeked again. I didn't mind that. I've seen the digital de-aging process before and it can be effective, even though the characters' airbrushed looks are usually a bit distracting.

RANT ALERT: What I did object to was the filmmaker's decision to digitally resurrect a dead man. Remember Grand Moff Tarkin, the man that ordered the destruction of the planet Alderaan in A New Hope? He was played by the great Peter Cushing in a silky, wicked performance that gave us all the willies.

Peter Cushing died on August 11, 1994, but he has several scenes in Rogue One. Actor Guy Henry provided the voice, doing his impression of Cushing. Then the special effects folks inserted the image of Cushing and used CGI to operate the deceased actor's face like a marionette.

How creepy. How ghoulish. How inappropriate and tacky. Thankfully, Henry doesn't sound or emote like Cushing, and the image doesn't look genuine. It has that same weird appearance around the eyes and overall stiffness that made the digital humans in Polar Express look like zombies or aliens or something equally repellent.

I hope they never perfect the process, because if they do, we're going to be assaulted with monstrosities like Casablanca 2: A Beautiful Friendship starring digital versions of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.


END RANT ALERT: Now about the rest of the movie …

Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards (the 2014 Godzilla), is a war movie built around the proverbial ragtag team. The group is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose long-missing scientist father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), has reportedly been forced to design a planet-killing weapon for the evil Empire. She learns that he has secretly engineered an Achilles heel into the machine that can allow its destruction. Her mission is to retrieve his plans and get them to the rebels. Accompanying her is the droid K-2SO, who comes off like C-3PO's bigger, tougher cousin. Alan Tudyk voices the droid, whose griping, sarcasm, and willingness to put his metallic hands where his mouth is adds a bit of fun to the grim team.

Others in the team include a blind swordsman (Donnie Yen) who talks too much about the Force, a mercenary warrior (Jiand Wen), a Rebel spy (Diego Luna) who reminds me of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, and a pilot that defected to the Alliance (Riz Ahmed). Also, Forest Whitaker does weird shit for a while as the man that raised Jyn after her pappy was snatched.

Colorful group, but the camaraderie that makes this kind of movie engaging isn't there. Fortunately, there are plenty of interesting locations and camera angles, along with near misses and big fights, to hold the attention of a less-than-hardcore viewer like me.

The last third of the movie is action packed, as the rebels try to help Jyn and company email the Death Star specs to safe hands so they can be where they need to be at the start of A New Hope. Along the way, several familiar faces appear.

For weeks I've been telling anyone that brought up the movie that what I wanted most was to see something, anything, that I hadn't seen in a previous Star Wars movie. Last night I saw lots of interesting variations of creatures or places I'd seen before, including a major Empire security base located near blue waters and sandy beaches. I wanted to get a timeshare there.

But Rogue One is firmly grounded in the Empire v Alliance battles and it appears that no one wants it to wander far astray. So the franchise keeps rolling, with its latest plucky band of heroes, more Stormtroopers that die way too easily, and two upper management figures with respiratory problems.

I believe devoted Star Wars fans will be thrilled with the intense Rogue One. I liked it okay. Hope the next one finds the time to let their characters interact, swap a few one-liners, and bond. It's unseemly that the most human character in a Star Wars movie is the droid.

NOTE: If you're seeing Rogue One in Indianapolis, see it at the IMAX Theatre at the State Museum downtown. Six story screen, killer sound – it's definitely the best place to experience the movie.


Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.