Alert the presses, we have a new best prequel in town. The bar was not especially high from Episodes I, II, and III, but Rogue One took that bar and pole vaulted right over it for a monstrous personal best.
The first of the “Anthology Films,” Rogue One tells the story of a group of mostly unknowns within the rebel organization who take part in an unsanctioned operation to steal the plans for the first Death Star. (Yes, first Death Star. Not second. Everyone whining about the unfair treatment of Bothans needs to go back and get their timelines corrected.) The narrative takes place immediately before the events of Episode IV, serving as about direct a prequel as you could get to Leia’s escape aboard the Tantive IV that opens up A New Hope.
The point of these anthology films is to expand the world and tell one-shot stories outside of the Episodic, overarching tales of the Skywalkers and their destinies. To use a Dungeons and Dragons analogy, the Episodes are the main campaign, while the anthology films are going to be one-shots about random NPCs, or are singular side quests to establish backstory (as the upcoming Han Solo project is likely to be). The film stays in the same universe, but can have a vastly different tone or style. It doesn’t have to feel like classic Star Wars, because it doesn’t need to.
Rogue One is tonally and stylistically different from anything we’ve seen thus far. The colors are muted and dark and the music is inspired by William’s score but is its own creation entirely (penned by Michael Giacchino of Pixar music fame). The narrative is dark, Empire Strikes Back dark, and probably then some, considering the fates of nearly everyone involved. I know it’s Star Wars because I recognize the X-Wings, the Massassi Temples of Yavin IV, the steely visage of Grand Moff Tarkin (albeit one in CG due to the actor’s death).
But it’s also something all its own- a war story, a doomed mission, and a narrative free of many of the more “family friendly” gimmicks that have made Star Wars a pop culture titan shared by multiple generations. Adults will likely love this movie- but I’d imagine the same children obsessed with Rey and BB-8 will not have the same adoration for Jyn and her suicide squad. But there is nothing wrong with that.
My only real issue with the film was that establishment of tone. The movie began unevenly-striving to be a dark and gritty installment filled with the same actions we knew the Imperials were capable of, but putting them front and center on-screen. The rebels too get their share of combat- the fighters are not faceless pilots masked by helmets. They are on the ground, fighting in the streets, blowing up vehicles and getting their hands dirty. It’s a true rebellion. But it’s still a PG-13 movie, and it still tries to fit the Star Wars tropes. As much as I enjoy a snarky robot, the comedy seemed off at times. And I’m not sure if Saw Gerrera was supposed to be funny, but the weird voice was unintentionally so. The movie also could’ve gone farther in the earlier acts- a monster meant to destroy one’s mind wasn’t frightening enough, and the torture he incurred seemed all but forgotten moments later.
At least the final 45 minutes made up for all of the films earlier shortcomings. The battle on Scarif was breathtaking. The AT-ATs, the guerilla fighters, the infiltration. It was perfect, it was violent, and it was an ending that the movie had to have. Anything otherwise would’ve felt cheap. Rogue One was always a story about impossible odds, and it felt absolutely right to have a mission succeed without a happily ever after. The war has begun, and there had to be casualties.
Now I’m just itching for Episode VIII.