The cinematic genius of George Lucas’ Star Wars universe, established in the original 1977 film and mirrored last year in the opening frame of J. J. Abrams’ feature length torch-passing (admittedly, a low-key moving one), The Force Awakens; is the very rudimentary concept of light pushing back against overwhelming darkness. Whether it is used as a spiritual or physical allegory or… literally, it’s a compelling image built for the cinema, the light of the projector the lone truthsayer in the fight against deceptive shadows, illuminating and revealing in the only it way it knows how.
That’s why even when the series loses its way (as it has many, many times) the powerful simplicity of the universe itself manages to resonate in even its unwieldy entries, and perhaps more than any other Star Wars film since the original, Rogue One feels constructed from that simplicity, and the series’ initial idea of the inherent power of ordinary people choosing to do the right thing, and bends them in complex directions while also maintaining an economical framework that echoes the characters’ journey, which is why, though it too occasionally finds itself lost in slavish devotion to the mythology (and fans), this film’s particular highs are some of series’ highest.
From the very first scene death looms over everything in Rogue One, Edwards juxtaposes the intimate tragedy of the Erso family with stunningly scaled vistas under invasion by Imperial forces, showing us how minor decisions made between a handful of people can have huge implications. Fifteen years later we’re introduced to just that, an aggressively unremarkable ragtag crew that are going to change the galaxy forever. They’re killers, outsiders, workers… survivors. One is a cargo pilot for the Empire, another is a glorified assassin of the Rebellion, if Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilory get one thing absolutely right it’s emphasizing how, at least to these grunts on the ground, that distinction honestly doesn’t mean much. Both are massive groups sending working class people to the slaughter for benefits they will never live to see. Jyn Erso (Felecity Jones), for example, whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelson) is the lead engineer on the Death Star, is an outcast to both because neither see her as a women befallen tragedy but a political hostage.
This is where Rogue One is at its best, Edwards (not dissimilar from his perspective work on 2014’s criminally underrated Godzilla) exploring the shadowy, ground-level crevices sometimes implied, but never really seen in the larger Star Wars mythos. This portrait of the Empire is of power-hungry insiders businessmen in bare, distanced rooms, while the portrait of the Rebellion is one of fractured leaders and war lords, performing what are ostensibly acts of terror. If A New Hope was light vs. dark, this is lighter grey vs. darker grey. Both groups require you to sacrifice individualism, ignoring how capable individuals can be. The single glimmer of hope that puts these events into motion is a single act of bravery and sacrifice by a single man, which are revealed while a vista of literal death swallowing the sun looms in the distance. Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly) take every opportunity to reflect this in their filmmaking, their frames dirty and cluttered, practically bleeding shadows and, most importantly, always on the lookout for new vantage points that highlight small gestures and big impacts.
How good Rogue One is in these moments—like a brief sequence in the final setpiece that tracks the process of information, decision and action by the rebels, that shows the individual faces and perspectives of more soldiers than perhaps any other war sequence in recent memory—however, is what makes its lows hurt even more. At constant war with Edwards’ vision of loners in a ground-level armed conflict, is Disney’s need to give the people what they want… meaning for every gorgeously composed vista (that one that occurs at the climax of the Death Star demonstration is some of the most expressive cg maybe ever) we get not just callbacks, but direct tie-ins and recreations so disastrous and misguided you wonder if they even pondered the ethics behind cg reanimating the corpse of Peter Cushing’s 1977 self back to life so that fanboys could cry out in joy… And to give the monstrosity so much screen time, at that. Fan-service I can live with, but this is not just fan-service, this is mutilation that contradicts the central story. Nothing speaks to the perspective of the small, forgotten notches of history like an entire sequence dedicated to how cool and badass the most iconic cinematic villain of all time is. Gotta keep that brand alive, baby! That solo Vader film could be up next!!!
The impulse to deliver on broader, more familiar thrills fans will rave about online is an understandable one, but here it’s one that not just distracts from but actively negates what makes this movie special. The closing moments in particular are incredibly frustrating, as the moments that lead up to it, that for the first time since Empire Strikes Back get to linger on the pain and ultimately cathartic tragedy of what we just watched unfold, couldn’t have been a more perfect way to end the film… As Ignatiy put it best: “the path to A New Hope is littered with bodies, wreckage and sacrifice.”