Spoiler-free introIf you haven't seen the movie yet, you might want to not read past the spoiler alert warning below.
So, you've no doubt seen reviews that say Rogue One is the best Star Wars film, and reviews that claim it's utterly disappointing. I liked it a lot, and I think it's a movie that gets better the closer you look at it. I definitely plan to see it again, and see how much more I can pick out of it.
I have a theory about how people's enjoyment of Rogue One related to their overall level of nerdiness, specifically their level of Star Wars nerdiness. The theory goes like this: I think that the graph of enjoyment vs Star Wars nerdiness has two peaks, one on the low end, and one on the high end, with a substantial dip in between.
If you only know the Star Wars films a little bit, or just aren't that much of nerd, in general, Rogue One is a pretty serviceable Sci-Fi action adventure, with some shootouts, some chases, and some amazing visual effects. If you're a super-fan, you get all of that, AND a truly prodigious number of cameos, offhand references, and call-outs to just about every Star Wars movie or TV series, from the original trilogy, to the prequels, to The Force Awakens, to Rogue One to Rebels. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a reference to the Star Wars Christmas Special hidden in there somewhere.
In the middle, we run into the unfortunate people who just really liked the original 3 films (and maybe The Force Awakens), and are headed into Rogue One expecting more of the same I expect these people to come out a little disappointed with Rogue One, because it's really quite different from the original Star Wars movies. This is, I believe, intentional, and brilliant in its own way, but it's definitely going to turn some people off.
Here are some of the ways in which Rogue One carves out new territory in the Star Wars universe, and some of my favorite bits of clever film-making in it.
SPOILERS START HERE!!!!
Mirrors and reflectionsWe all remember how the original Star Wars started, I hope. There's the opening text crawl, and then we jump right into the action. A small space ship, fleeing under heavy fire, retreats into the background, and then their pursuer comes into view - a mind-bogglingly-massive grey wedge of death, the Super Star Destroyer.
Roque One has no text crawl, but it does open on a scene in space, relatively peaceful, or so it seems. And then a great grey wedge starts to intrude into the scene. For just a fraction of a moment, your brain says "Oh, it's one of those giant Imperial ships", but then you realize it just doesn't look right, and the camera tilts and pans, revealing that you're looking at the edge of a planetary ring. As you're settling in, waiting to see what happens, a small ship (an Imperial shuttle, this time) crosses the frame, and heads into the background. Where as in Star Wars, we're immediately ready to cheer on the rebels, in this scene, we don't yet know what to think of this spaceship, heading alone down to land on the planet. It's obviously not good news for the locals, though...
So, there's an obvious echo here between the original and the prequel. There's just enough similarity to trip you up if you think you know what you're about to see. It's a bit like watching the original Star Wars through a blurry lens, or in a fun-house mirror. Rogue One does a lot of this.
It's in the nature of sequels, and even more so in the nature of prequels, to be defined to some extent by how they fit together with, and how they differ from, the original film. It's a bit like how people who have a twin will often grow up to define themselves in terms of their differences from their sibling.
As an immediate prequel to the original movie, Rogue One basically ends right where Star Wars begins. This single moment becomes the mirror in which the original Star Wars is reflected both back in time and backwards in outlook.
When The Empire Strikes Back was released, Star Wars was re-titled as Star Wars: A New Hope. What comes before hope? Despair. Rogue One's story picks up at probably the lowest point of the Rebellion agains the Empire. The rebels can't decide on strategy, they've lost control over some of their own best operatives, and now they've learned of a super-weapon, the Death Star, which has been created specifically to crush the rebellion once and for all.
It's very dark in hereSome people have called Rogue One a "dark" film, and that's true on all sorts of different levels. First off, it's actually literally dark in places where the original is light, and vice-versa. Tatooine, the location of most of the beginning of Star Wars, is a blindingly-bright, glaring white sand desert. The first location we visit in Rogue One is a black sand beach, with clouds overhead. It's literally exactly the opposite of Tatooine.
When we first see the main bad guy (Darth Vader) in Star Wars, he's in a black outfit, surrounded by foot soldiers wearing white armor. In Rogue One, the main villain appears wearing a white outfit, accompanied by a squad of stormtroopers in black armor.
This is a fairly subtle bit of film-making, but I think it's brilliant. It could have easily gone some other way, with Orson Krennic, the weapons director, wearing any of the other Imperial uniforms we've seen before, and accompanied by the traditional white-armored Storm Troopers. But it's subtly "off", and sets up the expectation that this movie is not going to follow the familiar conventions and story arcs of the series.
War is hell, and hell is the Middle East (or Jedha)Somewhat ironically, for a series of films called "Star Wars", the previous films never really touched on the chaos, terror, and moral grey areas of fighting a war. Rogue One finally does that, in a big way. There has been a lot of talk about the "it's a war movie" aspect of the film, with critics comparing it to WWII movies or Vietnam movies. There are obvious parallels there, but this also feels to me like a war movie with its roots in Afghanistan and Syria, a throughly-modern take on the nature of fighting a war.
There's a scene where a group of rebels ambush an Imperial patrol, disabling their armored vehicle and killing the stormtroopers. It's the first real fighting we see in the movie, and it's important for setting the tone of the "rebellion on the ground", as opposed to the "rebellion in theory" that we're introduced to when Jyn meets Mon Mothma and the rest of the Rebel leadership after being rescued from imperial custody.
The whole sequence is just fraught with references to recent middle eastern conflicts. There's the tank ambush itself, which feels like a reference to 1988's The Beast, a film about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then there are the rebels hiding in caves outside the city proper, a definite nod the the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, as well as the later Al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
The war machines of the Empire are literally powered by the ancient religious treasures of the local population, a reference to both ISIL's destruction of historic sites, and their use of captured oil production infrastructure to finance their war against the governments of the region.
In the middle of the chaos of the tank battle, the nominally-heroic Captain Cassian shoots one of the local rebels, in order to keep Jyn safe. He doesn't even hesitate, he just does it. That kind of divided loyalty is the very essence of modern coalition warfare.
In the end, the Empire solves their rebel "problem" by blasting the entire city from space, with a "precision" shot from the Death Star. Just like the "smart bombs" used in recent real-world conflicts, the single-reactor shot from the Death Star does far less damage than the Empire is easily capable of, but it still causes massive amounts of "collateral damage". It's a very Apocalypse Now, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it" moment.
And speaking of Apocalypse Now, what about Saw Gerrera? Here's a high-ranking Rebel commander, who's gone off the grid on Jedha, commanding his own personal band of fanatics in a mountain stronghold, leading guerrilla attacks on the Imperial troops, in a way that the "official" rebellion leadership does't approve of. The Rebel leadership dispatches an intelligence officer / field agent to track Gerrerra down, but because this film doesn't perfectly copy any of its inspirations, Captain Caspian isn't ordered to kill Gerrerra, but instead is supposed to use him to find Galen Erso, who he is ordered (secretly) to kill.
You call these people "heroes"?We've got Galen Erso, a collaborator, complete with the classic "If I didn't do it, they'd just get someone else to" excuse. He tries to sabotage the Empire's war machine form the inside, perhaps in guilt over what he's helped to build. In the end, this man, who nobody in the rebellion will even remember, is in fact the only reason the Empire didn't manage to totally destroy the Rebellion, one planet at a time.
Saw Gerrera, an insane ex-rebel, who's decided to fight the war on his own terms. Bodhi Rook, the Imperial shuttle pilot, defects on Galen Erso's orders. He's supposed to take the news of the Death Star's weakness to the rebellion. Unfortunately, Erso sends him to Gerrera, not knowing that his former friend has gone off the deep end. Gerrera's men blindfold Rook, in a scene that echoes the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program, and deliver him to Gerrara, who tortures Rook, just to be sure of the truth of the message from his former friend. After torturing him, Gerrera just discards Rook, even though we later learn that it would take very little actual effort to help him recover from his experience.
Let's hear it for Captain Cassian. He's the anti- Han Solo. Instead of being a smuggler who reluctantly gets pulled into the rebellion, he's a Special Ops soldier who's engaged in all sorts of dirty tactics for the rebellion, a man who's so completely bought in to the cause, that's he's perfectly happy to lie to everybody who's working with him, and accept a mission to use a young woman to get to her father, then assassinate him. When he finally has that moment of clarity, and realizes that he can't just execute Erso in cold blood, it actually feels like it means something.
And then there's the hero/viewpoint character, Jyn. She's an orphan, of course (what is it with orphans in Star Wars?), but instead of secretly being the child of the big bad guy, who's been raised by the rebels until she can challenge her parent and save the galaxy, she's...basically a nobody. Her father's kind of important to the Death Star project, but I'd bet that other than his boss (who has a much higher opinion of his skills than even Erso does), nobody in the Imperial hierarchy has even heard of him.
Miscellaneous cool bitsDarth Vader is back, and he's completely terrifying. The scene in Vader's castle establishes the quiet menace with which Vader keeps the Empire under tight control. And the scene at the end of Rogue One, where he's in full-on psycho killer mode, stabbing rebel soldiers left and right, slicing through bulkheads? That's the Vader we know from the end of The Empire Strikes Back, and from the climactic lightsaber duel at the end of Return of The Jedi - a dark Jedi who's perfectly willing to give in to his hate, to his savage bloodlust, and use that power to beat down whatever gets in his way. Also a great call-out to The Force Awakens' Kylo Ren, who has those same emotional tendencies, without the control to go with it.
I love everything about Chirrut Îmwe, the blind monastic warrior. He's not a Jedi Knight, but he's everything that we loved about Ben Kenobi from the original, and he finally puts the "Midichlorian" nonsense from the prequels to rest for good. The Force isn't a bacterial infection, it's a mystical connection between every living thing, and if you believe, if you give yourself over to it, you can achieve amazing things.
One subtle bit that I loved was his reciting his mantra, walking utterly unharmed through a killing field of covering fire, right up to the control console for the communication relay...and then totally fumbling for the switch. Because of course, he can't just see the switch - he's blind. He can "see" all of the soldiers via the Force, he can get all of them to miss him (or maybe not shoot in his particular direction?), but the switch is just a dead metal lever - it can't be easily seen or influenced through the Force.
Alan Tudyk plays K-2SO, who's a sarcastic pilot who dies on the final mission to try to "get the signal out". That one's a bit heavy-handed by Rogue One standards, but I loved Firefly, so I'll let that one slide.
And this is now two Star Wars films in a row with a female lead, and a major secondary male character, who don't fall in love, but do develop a strong friendship through their adventures. I get really sick of the idea that every movie needs to have a romantic sub-plot, and I'm glad to see the idea of platonic friendships between men and women being treated as just as relevant as romantic entanglements.