At one point as I was watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, I actually forgot I was watching a film that was in any way located in the Star Wars universe. This might seem like a bad thing but, upon reflection, it is actually an example of the strength of this movie. I say this because Star Wars, for being such a beloved franchise, is not without its fair share of controversy.
Much of this controversy centers around the Star Wars Anakin Skywalker trilogy, Episodes 1, 2 and 3, that came out decades after the original film graced screens. These films, while technically, very satisfying, ultimately left a lot to be desired. That said, when you're telling the story of how Darth Vader ultimately betrayed the good of The Force and joined The Dark Side, you're going to have your share of detractors. Still, nobody could probably predict the way that the Star Wars Prequel trilogy would be skewered.
For a lot of people, they felt that George Lucas had made the prequels "kids movies" and thus vaporized the original fans. Other people had a hard time with Hayden Christensen's portrayal of Anakin Skywalker and his relationship with Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). There even more that hated the introduction to Jar Jar Binks. Whatever your reason, these prequels almost seemed to be dining in the fans misery of these characters. At the same time, kids loved these films and, in the years since they were released, have come of age with them in much the same way that my generation did with Episodes 4, 5 and 6.
This is where the slippery slope of making a Star Wars movie truly lies. They have a shared history that spans generations! The makers of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story couldn't simply make a movie to please the hardcore fans. That audience, while large, isn't the only audience. The fans of the first three films need to be respected without getting Jar Jar cameos in every film. And this is the crux of what has made Rogue One the success that it is. It managed to straddle both worlds, and in the process it gave us the best prequel film in the series.
Rogue One is not bound by the same rules as the prequel trilogy.
While everybody knew the story for Rogue One, the Rebel Alliance stealing the plans to destroy the Death Star before Episode 4 happened, it wasn't telling us a story we all know and have expectations of. There were many questions. Who were the characters? How big of a role would Darth Vader have? Why was an Imperial soldier holding up a Stormtrooper doll? How come Darth Vader's helmet wasn't connected to his suit? Why would there be no title crawl in this movie? The questions go on and on. Now, if you're a purist you might not be able to get passed these issues. If you are not (and I am most certainly not), I reveled in the fact that Rogue One kicked the prequel trilogy traditions to the curb and broke new ground in the process. We need these standalone films to not be bound by the same rules as the films in the trilogies. Why? Because at the end of the day it allows for characters like Jyn Erso, Saw Gerrera, Cassian Andor, Chirrut Imwe and many others to exist. If the Star Wars universe isn't evolving (this includes the Star Wars Prequel trilogies and all the other films completed in the canon), lord help the rest of us.
Rogue One is a prequel in name only.
A big discussion around Rogue One is whether or not this film is really a prequel. A lot of people say that it isn't, while others, citing where it takes place after the Star Wars Prequel trilogy, certainly declare that it is. I personally think that it is, however, you could take out the biggest things that connect it to Episode 4 and you would still have a terrific film. What are those things, you ask? Well, it begins with the connective tissue, Senator Bail Organa. He figured quite prominently in the official Star Wars Prequel trilogy. By having him in Rogue One, he is a direct link to those films and, not like we needed it, firmly ensconces Rogue One in that timeline. Add to the this the cameo by Princess Leia at the end of the film, and Grand Moff Tarkin's near starring role, and it honestly feels like we now have a 5 hour version of Episode 4. What separates Rogue One and ultimately makes it work better than the prequel trilogy is that it doesn't need the Star Wars timeline. It doesn't need those characters to be a better film. With the prequels it constantly felt like we were waiting for something to happen. Rogue One is constantly moving and in that regard, constantly changing the way we view this film and it's relationship to the trilogies.
A Better, Darker, Meaner Darth Vader
The Darth Vader that we saw at the end of the Star Wars prequel trilogy was in a much different place. Princess Leia had died and with that so had Vader's thoughts of being a father. He was no longer fully human. The Darth Vader that we see in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a completely different animal. In his big lightsaber wielding scene, in which he goes after the plans of the Death Star, it is as if a wild animal has been unleashed. He literally destroys everybody in the room. Multiple laser beams are coming at him and he deflects every one with ease. Aside from this, every scene he is in is terse and fraught with tension. Simply put, Darth Vader is not messing around. So well done is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story that we almost feel compelled to watch Episode 4 immediately just to see how the portrayal of this character, across many years and films, connect. Sadly, the prequel trilogy never really comes as close as Rogue One to showing us this much complexity of the man in black. Granted, he doesn't have nearly as much screentime, but that in itself is a problem.
Rogue One looks more like A New Hope
This might be scandalous to say but the retro-look of Rogue One is probably 50% of why it is being received so well. Episodes 4, 5 and 6 have been with us forever. We have a certain level of expectation when we see them. (This is why George Lucas's constant tinkering with them bothers so many fans, it seems.) So when we see a film that is supposed to be part of these long gestating film's lore, we want that film to dovetail into our expectations. This was probably where the prequel trilogy is most wanting. Rogue One, for a big budget, popcorn, Christmas film is wonderfully restrained. It is rich with a look that recalls the past films (namely Episode 4), but it doesn't always reside there. We are taken to places on screen that we have never seen before in the Star Wars Universe. As a result that retro-look, like Rogue One itself, is free to shift, move and become something totally different, yet remain comfortably old school in certain parts of its aesthetic. Sadly, the Star Wars Prequel trilogy went in such a different direction, it appeared at times as if the subject matter was serving the look of the films instead of the other way around.
Rogue One is not cute, but it's not cold.
The tone of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story might be the most impressive thing about it. There are moments, especially at the outset of the film, where we are genuinely scared. I don't mean "bad guy in a movie" scared, I mean horror movie scared. However, there are also instances of great levity that actually occur as the Rebel Alliance attempts to outwit the Imperial Forces. This is to be expected in a Star Wars film. Nobody seem up in arms at the fun that Luke, Han, and Chewy have as they engage in a space battle in Episode 4. It is this ability to not be cute and not be cold, that the Star Wars Prequel trilogy truly lacked. They went so far in the cute direction in the prequel trilogy, that when they wanted to be serious, we were still mind-boggled by whatever cute atrocity we have just laid witness too. Rogue One has richness to it. We care about all the characters and, given how many there are, this is truly extraordinary as they don't occupy the screen for that long. However, this new cast of characters is so dynamic that we honestly feel sadness at their demise. We felt sad watching the prequels (no, not that kind of sadness!), but the sadness and our connection to it in Star Wars: Rogue One was entirely more palpable.
Rogue One doesn't look like a video game.
Having talked about the tone, lets talk about the look of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The prequel trilogy, no matter how you try and spin it (they look better, they utilized new technology more, etc.), look like video games. Rogue One, and even more importantly Star Wars: The Force Awakens, have gone out of their way to place these characters in very real situations. I remember being surprised at the battle scenes in both films. The Star Wars Prequel trilogy would've had the main characters flying through the air, shooting off their guns, flipping and spinning away from enemy fire, etc. We get none of that Rogue One. I also recall watching Anakin and Obi Wan's battle scene on Mustafa. As they are battling on pieces of broken up earth that rest upon a bed lava, doing insane lightsaber moves, I found myself completely detached from it all. Look, I know I am watching a movie that takes place "in a galaxy far, far away," but a big reason why Star Wars: The Force Awakens and now Rogue One are resonating is because they have brought back the humanity to the films. They battles don't move at a lightning pace. We don't see the characters transformed into CGI and then bounce all over the screen in ways that are, from a physics standpoint, completely impossible. Sure, the the battles in Rogue One may not look as quick and slick, but that is a worthy sacrifice considering what we are getting in return. A superhuman tale being achieved by mortals who are always pushing themselves to be more than they are.
Rogue One gets to the heart of the story fast.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a very big film that is told in a scant 2 hours and 13 minutes. On the face of it, this might seem like a long period of time, but given the vagaries of the film marketplace, I am surprised that Disney didn't force them to end the film when Jyn Erso and company got to Scarif. This way they could break it up into two films and make more money. I make this point because we didn't need all of the episodes in the prequel trilogy to get to the story of Anakin Skywalker's descent into the Dark Side. That probably could have been better told over 2 films instead of 3, but then you've got 5 films and not 6 and that probably didn't make sense story, money and Star Wars Universe-wise. From the start of Rogue One we are on the edge of our seat. New characters are introduced and then, before we know it, we see how Jyn Erso has her family taken from her. At this point we meet Saw Gerrera and things take another turn. After that there are many more twists and turns until this story eventually reaches it's surprising denouement. One feels like they have been through something. The other prequels never felt that way. They never made one feel like a significant portion of the movie had been accomplished. It was as if large portions of the films in the Star Wars Prequel trilogy, were mere place holders to get to the bigger story everybody wanted to see in Revenge of the Sith.
Rogue One is not afraid to be different.
In a very big surprise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story went out of its way to embrace the different. This is surprising because the days of these films being the "babies" of any one filmmaker are long gone. In fact, when one looks back at the $9 million dollar Star Wars - Episode 4: A New Hope, it really does seem unfinished compared to the $200 million plus Star Wars films that are being made today. So, with so much money at stake, why did Disney take such incredible chances? Sure, Star Wars films are always going to make money, but there's a fanbase, a toy base, a food base, etc., and those are many masters to satisfy in this expanded world. So, why have no title crawl? People say its because this film isn't part of the Star Wars canon. Okay, but Rogue One: A Stars Story clearly is. It is a great story. Surely, a title crawl would've been fairly easy to construct. What about Darth Vader? Why does his helmet look different? It isn't attached to his body? Why give Grand Moff Tarkin such a large, CGI role? I realize that they played it straight. It isn't like they turned Tarkin into Jar Jar Binks, but still, people often scoff at seminal characters being CGI'd. Rogue One does this twice!! I could go on and on about how this film takes chances. The point that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ultimately makes is that sometimes, in order to expand something, you need to make it familiar enough that it can be deconstructed. The prequel trilogy attempted this but the direction it went in, making it too much for kids, was ultimately rebuked by the people who had helped make Star Wars the filmic myth that it is in the first place.
Rogue One introduces great new characters.
If you would have told me, going into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, that I would come to care about such characters as Chirrut Imwe, Cassian Andor, Saw Gerrera, K-2SO, Baze Malbus, etc., I would've said you were crazy. It's easy to care about Jyn Erso. Felicity Jones is the star of the film. She's pretty much in every scene and she also happens to be a fantastic actress. The actors in the prequel trilogy were good. Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen (despite what you think about him) are both very good actors. Add to this that they both had solid casts behind them and that seemed to bode well for the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. The reality is that with the exception of Obi Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul (probably because we pretty much never got to know him), we don't come away from Episodes 1-3 with a real vested interest in those films. Portman has been pretty vocal about not enjoying the Star Wars prequel trilogy experience as much as we wanted her to. The sad truth is that this often showed on the screen. Flash forward to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and you have a movie that feels alive. The actors seem to understand what a privilege it was to be able to exist in this universe. Now, I don't fault the actors in Episodes 1-3. They had the unenviable task of essentially reviving a trilogy that people had lived with for decades. It was near impossible to live up to or exceed those expectations. Admittedly, the expectations for Rogue One were not nearly as high, even though this was the maiden voyage of these stand-alone films.
Rogue One welcomes the darkness.
Not only does Rogue One: A Star Wars Story look incredible it has what is probably the darkest ending of any Disney film I have ever seen. SPOILER ALERT: The good guys die. This might seem like something small but it really is not. Star Wars is a franchise. It thrives when its main characters thrive. Sure, they could make other films that are prequels to Rogue One, but those wouldn't be made for quite some time. They don't immediately provide the cash that Disney seeks, however, they probably will in the future. As I have also mentioned, this films are very big business. They are the biggest films being made today. Our heroes aren't supposed to die. Sure they win, but it's a pyrrhic victory. This is true, not only for the characters in this films but also for Disney in regards to its balance sheets.
No Jar Jar Binks
While it shouldn't surprise anybody that this lovable, Gungan outcast is nowhere near this film, I have to tip my pen to the creators of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In this day and age where everybody is trying to make the old new again, trying to make things that don't work work, it was nice to see that Jar Jar Binks was nowhere near this film. It would've been very easy to put him in as a cameo in some way. It would have been quite easy for the folks at ILM to whip up a new version (sorta like how they made K-2SO Rogue One's C3PO), but they refrained. And given the amount of talent, terabytes, and robust computer offerings that that facility maintains, that in itself is quite a feat. And also a big statement about the Star Wars Prequel trilogy. Add to this that the film has a pretty dark look. There are times when it seems like certain scenes were merely composed with a key light, and it is even more impressive that they didn't try and add moments of levity to Rogue One: A Stars Story. One can only imagine how a new Jar Jar could've been whipped up. Maybe it would've worked? Maybe not? I am just happy that this is something I don't have to ponder too hard. Jar Jar was in the prequel trilogy, he had his time, he made some people happy, lets just leave him where he is, shall we?
Rogue One is a family movie not made for kids.
If George Lucas did indeed want the prequel trilogy to be kid's movies, he certainly achieved that goal. That doesn't mean that they are terrible. The original prequels are not. It is just that, taken out of George Lucas's hands, we get a sensibility from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story that is much more balanced. It is more nuanced. It has the sense of humor that we remember from Episodes 4, 5 and 6. Quite simply, this is a film for everyone without playing to the lowest common denominator. You have to pay attention in Rogue One. You can't be a passive viewer and hope that the story resonates. You need to come in with some sense of Star Wars history. However, if you don't you would still enjoy Rogue Onefor being an awesome space opera/action film. Lucas was at a different place in his life when he made the original trilogy and the Star Wars Prequel trilogy that followed. He was essentially a kid in the beginning. Then he became a father. Perhaps, indexing the prequels to be for a younger audience helped him cope with the fact that his own kids were growing up and leaving the nest? Whatever the case, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a very special film. It is the first of the stand-alone movies, it breaks from many of the Star Wars conventions, and it also tells a meaningful story while never straying from its goal to be pure entertainment.
Rogue One has has better crossovers, tie-ins and Easter eggs.
How great is it that we get a few moments with R2D2 and C3PO? In the theater I was in, audiences erupted with glee when they appeared on screen. There's the great CGI performances from Princess Leia and Grand Moff Tarkin. How about a shot of the Rebel Scope Tower? A THX-1138 callback? I could go on but this was actually covered in greater detail elsewhere on the site. However, Rogue One did something that seemed impossible. In one film, it managed to merge Star Wars seamlessly with its past, present and future. The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy attempted to do this. It didn't completely fail, it just fell short. You can't fault the prequel trilogy for trying, right? It is just pretty incredible that in one fell swoop, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story also added even more mystery to this very complex universe. The crossovers, tie-ins and the easter eggs just feel right here in a way that they didn't in the previous Star Wars films.
The Jokes are actually funny.
Whether it's Darth Vader warning Director Krennic not to "choke on your aspirations," or K-2SO being put upon to do something outrageous, or one of the newer characters like Chirrut Imwe cracking wise with an aside, Rogue One is one of the funnier Star Wars movies in recent memory. Can you even think of a joke from the prequel trilogy? I am sure that they are there, but part of the reason Rogue One is so memorable is because of its fun tone. Even when there's some major moment, the relief at the end of it is often humor. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story succeeds because it manages to balance a serious tale with levity. The Star Wars prequel trilogy is almost too light. It's as if, at times, through its jokes, it doesn't take things seriously. Then it tries to get back on track but the train has already moved on. This isn't to say that Rogue One is a laugh riot, but compared to the canon of Star Wars films, there is a fun quotient that can't be discounted or denied.
Rogue One has better acting and no forced romance.
This has been touched upon but it bares repeating. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, in any other film, could've been a hot commodity. However, the Star Wars prequel trilogy was so kid centric that the romance between them almost made no sense. It felt like an afterthought. That moment in Star Wars: Episode 2 - Attack of the Clones, when Princess Amidala tells Anakin that she loves him, it comes out of left field. Sure, they've been through some amazing things together, but that ultimately isn't enough to make it feel like they have fallen in love. Whereas, take Rogue One's "almost tryst" between Cassian Andor and Jyn Erso. They are together doing these amazing things throughout the entire film. Then we see a few moments of them together before their planet blows up. These are mere moments, not two whole films, and the passion between these characters is palpable. People wait their whole lives and never get looked at by someone they care about the way Felicity Jones looks at Diego Luna. Across the board, with pretty much all the characters in Rogue One, the acting was just on another level. As a result, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story plays with much more humanity then we saw in the prequel trilogy. Sorry, Lucas.
What'd you think? Did we sum up why Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a better film than the other films in the Star Wars prequel trilogy? Are we wrong? Are you in that minority that happens to think that the prequel trilogy is better than the original trilogy? Let us know and remember to use The Force and be respectful!