Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has officially landed and much like last year’s The Force Awakens, it’s getting a positive reception from both critics and fans alike. That being said, while Disney was able to sell The Force Awakens to audiences by emphasizing its ties to the original trilogy, aka the “good” Star Wars movies, Rogue One has had a bit of a stigma attached to it ever since it was first revealed that it would take place before A New Hope, thus making it a Star Wars prequel. George Lucas’ prequel trilogy is considered cinematic trash by many, so it’s understandable why some were a bit wary of another film set before the events of Episodes IV-V. Thankfully, there was no need to worry, as Rogue One is not only better than The Phantom Menace, Attack of The Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, a case could be made that it’s even better than The Force Awakens too. Here’s why:
8. The Characters Are Actually Likable / Interesting
Although Star Wars Episodes I – III are filled with familiar characters, most of them are downright boring, with only a select few such as Obi-Wan Kenobi or Palpatine registering as likable enough to be invested in (to be fair, Palpatine is likable mostly because of how delightfully evil he is). In contrast, Rogue One’s main cast is made up almost entirely of never-before-seen characters and while there is a disappointing lack of development across the board (133 minutes only gives you so much time for such things), each one is compelling in their own way and feel fleshed out enough when we first meet them that it’s actually not all that disappointing that very few of them grow over the course of the film.
Each member of Jyn Erso’s six member Rebel team are likable in their own way, with Alan Tudyk’s morbidly humorous droid K-2SO and Donne Yen’s badass, blind Force worshiper Chirrut Îmwe being personal favorites. Watching these characters forge a collective bond over the course of the film helps make their desperate mission feel poignant and necessary, as this plucky bunch of unlikely heroes aren’t all that much different from Luke, Han, and Leia’s group in the original trilogy, which might be why their dynamic ends up working so well.
7. It Returns Darth Vader To True Villain Status
When it was first announced that Darth Vader would be making an appearance in Rogue One, many fans worried that the Dark Lord of the Sith’s role would feel shoehorned in and cheap. As it turns out, there was no need to worry, as the film uses Vader pretty much perfectly, employing the fearsome villain in two key scenes that are easily some of the film’s best moments. Without going into spoilers, Rogue One goes a long way in returning Darth Vader to ‘true villain status’ after the prequels and even Return of the Jedi softened him.
The Vader we meet in Rogue One is all business and is perhaps more terrifying in this film than he was in the entire original trilogy, including The Empire Strikes Back. Considering this is probably the last time we’ll see Vader in a Star Wars movie — or at least the last time we’ll get to hear James Earl Jones voice the character — it’s refreshing to see that Disney knew exactly how to send a character of his stature off in style.
6. It Feels Like Star Wars
If you thought The Force Awakens hit all the right notes in terms of mining Star Wars nostalgia, just wait until you get to the climactic final battle in Rogue One. X-Wings dogfight with hundreds of TIE Fighters while AT-ATs attack Rebel troops on the ground below, forming perhaps the greatest action scene in Star Wars history not involving lightsabers. This is a film that gets what makes Star Wars such a beloved cinematic franchise, in a way that the prequels, with their focus on trade dispute nonsense and dopey battle droids, failed to convey.
The fact that it does this without featuring Jedi or John Williams doing the score only reinforces that an authentic Star Wars movie is all about hitting the right tone. Rogue One may be one of the darker films in the franchise, but at the end of the day, it feels like more of a space opera adventure than any of the other prequels, which is arguably what’s at the heart of any great Star Wars film.
5. Puts The War in ‘Star Wars’
Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff caught a lot of flak this week for pointing out in the title of his Rogue One review that this is the first Star Wars movie to acknowledge that the franchise is about war — “Duh, ‘War’ is right in the title,” cried many a smug fanboy — but VanDerWerff’s point, although awkwardly expressed, is valid. Rogue One is truly the first Star Wars movie that attempts to show the darker side of what an intergalactic war would look like, as the film’s boots-on-the-ground third act depicts many casualties on both sides of the conflict.
It’s certainly still fun to watch — particularly because it features perhaps the best space battle in Star Wars history — but it also feels more brutal and authentic than the battle scenes featured in other Star Wars films. Of course, this doesn’t mean Star Wars is suddenly Saving Private Ryan or anything, but it’s refreshing to see a film in the franchise attempt to dig a little deeper into the ‘Wars’ portion of the title. I don’t think every film from here on out should necessarily adopt this sort of style and tone, but Rogue One helps prove that Star Wars can venture outside of its space opera adventure mold from time-to-time and still find success.
4. It Builds Out The Universe In Meaningful Ways
For all of the prequel trilogy’s faults, one thing that it did well was introduce a bevy of interesting new planets and creature designs. Admittedly, some of these designs were hit and miss (Jar Jar Binks, I’m looking at you) but you can’t really deny that George Lucas tried hard to expand upon the universe he had created decades earlier. That being said, the argument can be made that Lucas went too far in his quest to fill out his universe, as the prequels ended up complicating or downright contradicting concepts established in the original trilogy.
In contrast, Rogue One largely succeeds in its attempts to build out the universe because it recognizes that things such as new planets and creatures should compliment what already exists. One example that stands out is the desert moon Jedha, which not only builds out bits of Star Wars lore (it’s of historical significance to the Jedi), but in practical terms also shows what life under Imperial rule looks like, as the Empire is shown cracking down on the citizenry of Jedha City while they seek out Rebel insurgents. Stuff like this help make the Star Wars universe feel more like a place where people actually live and also reinforces the film’s narrative direction by emphasizing the Rebellion’s plight against the fascist Empire.
3. Fan Service Done Right
Given that Rogue One is set just prior to the events of the very first Star Wars, it’s hardly surprising that the film contains many nods and Easter eggs that allude to it. Rogue One could have easily turned into an extended trailer for A New Hope, with characters and locations from that film popping up all over the place, but the level of restraint it shows in packing in just the right amount of fan service while also attempting to be its own thing is commendable.
Gareth Edwards’ film clearly understands its audience, with images such as blue milk on a kitchen table or a small cameo by a certain pair of droids being subtle or brief enough that they enhance the film, rather than distracting from the central narrative. That isn’t to say that Rogue One doesn’t stumble occasionally in its execution, but it still does a much better job of paying homage to the original trilogy than the prequels ever did.
2. There Are Actual Stakes Involved
Although viewers know where Rogue One is going to end up, with the Death Star plans being successfully delivered to Princess Leia’s ship, the focus on the ‘how’ of the Rebels’ daring heist lends the movie an air of suspense that the other prequels sorely lack. This is compounded by the fact that by using a cast of brand new characters who are nowhere to be found in the original trilogy, the film’s thrilling third act feels especially dangerous as it’s unclear if Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, or the rest of their Rebel team will make it out alive. With their focus on characters whom we already know the fates of, the other prequel films simply can’t deliver the same sort of stakes that Rogue One is able to.
1. It’s The Best Star Wars Movie Since Return of the Jedi
Star Wars fans will likely become divided over whether The Force Awakens or Rogue One is the better film, but for my money, it’s the latter. J.J. Abrams did a fine job bringing Star Wars back for a new generation while simultaneously trying to make up for the many perceived sins of the prequel trilogy, but The Force Awakens is a bit too formulaic in its attempts to ape the structure of A New Hope. Gareth Edwards had baggage of his own to overcome with Rogue One, especially since it’s a film answering a question that no one really asked, but that may be part of the reason why it is a superior film.
Simply put, The Force Awakens relies a little too heavily on mining nostalgia at the expense of narrative, whereas Rogue One is free to do its own thing because it’s not beholden to the Skywalker saga. It also helps that because Rogue One is set so close chronologically to the original trilogy, it fits in better with those films in terms of tone and style than any of the other installments, including The Force Awakens. Rian Johnson certainly has his work cut out for him in delivering a superior film with Episode VIII next year …