There are no spoilers in this review.
This is not the story. This is the story that leads to the story.
Rogue One, the latest film from the Star Wars universe, bridges the gap between Episodes III and IV (the original 1977 Star Wars), and between the lives of Anakin Skywalker and his orphaned son Luke. Through the eyes and adventures of Jyn Erso, the criminal who is the main protagonist, this film tells of how a group of rebel spies managed to capture the plans to blow up the Empire’s Death Star, the planet-destroying satellite that the dictatorship uses to wreak fear upon the galaxy (which Luke Skywalker ultimately destroys in Episode IV).
As well as serving this plot function, Rogue One exists as a moneymaking exercise for Disney, which bought Lucasfilm, the film house behind the Star Wars franchise, in 2013 for $4 billion. Disney has made clear its intentions to turn the episodic space opera into an empire itself—a universe of intertwined stories, video games, toys, merchandise, and whatever else it can sell to you. There will likely still be new Star Wars-related films being made long after the fans of the original 1977 film are dead.
Because of all this, Rogue One could’ve easily been phoned in. And if you watched director Gareth Edwards’ last big-budget film, Godzilla, you might have expected a pretty film with little regard for plot or character depth. But this film is surprisingly deep, filled with sadness and fatalism, and it offers a unique look into aspects of the Star Wars universe that the main films have brushed past.
As others have noted, Rogue One is at its heart a war movie. In fact the world of Rogue One feels a lot like the US’s occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade and a half. There are sand-encrusted religious villages occupied and under martial law, and disparate groups of insurgents, each with varying degrees of extremism and adherence to a religion, even though they’re now led by militants instead of priests. The film evokes the sense of hopelessness that comes from living under occupation.
Without giving much away, there are callbacks to just about every other film (mercifully, Jar Jar Binks does not make an appearance) and characters long-gone are revisited. But we’re still dropped quickly into a different world—a world of occupation and dictatorship that feels more consequential than much of what we’ve seen in the Lucasfilm universe thus far.
Like many war movies, Rogue One moves quickly, and there’s little time for the loneliness that we saw in Anakin, Luke, or The Force Awakens‘s Rey. Instead, the film explores the sadness and horror of war, the usually untold losses that every victory is built upon. For every lucky, heroic Luke Skywalker, there were platoons of men and women sent to their deaths to pave the way for his success.
There’s still a lot of ridiculous action and cornball dialogue in Rogue One, but the film’s final act did something that few action or science-fiction movies do: It shows us what happens to the good guys left behind in the fight against evil—the ones who make glory possible, but whose stories don’t always have happy endings.
Rogue One is referred to by Disney as a “Star Wars Story” in its official full title, and this is indeed a worthy story in itself. It’s a self-encapsulated moment that has a place in the grand space opera that generations of moviegoers have come to love. While its characters are minor ones within the pre-existing story arc, it contributes to our understanding of what’s at stake.
This film isn’t perfect (none of them have been), but it helps Disney establish a universe beyond the main films, without cheapening the franchise’s beloved brand. Here’s hoping the forthcoming Han Solo film (which really has no need to exist) has as much depth and poignancy as Rogue One does.