Rogue One – Book and Movie Review
Note: This review covers both the film Rogue One and the prequel novel Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel. Small “spoilers” abound but I’ll say without reservation that there is no way this review can really spoil anything. The conclusion was foregone. We already know how the story ends. What I haven’t spoiled are some of the little Easter eggs and nods to other parts of the Star Wars Universe that are peppered throughout the film—and there are A TON!
Creating a truly new Star Wars experience can be difficult. Just ask J. J. Abrams. The Force Awakens signaled the triumphant return of Star Wars to the big screen but its most common piece of criticism was that it came dangerously close to being a simple retelling of Star Wars. And Abrams had the luxury of working with a blank slate. Director Gareth Edwards and the team of writers behind Rogue One had the unenviably task of telling a story that was already known, in broad strokes if not in granular detail.
As it turns out, Rogue One’s narrative “shackles” were liberating. Beholden to nothing but the meat of the story—a team of rebels steal the plans to the Death Star and turn them over to the Alliance—Edwards et al manage to craft one of the most compelling Star Wars stories ever filmed. It is visceral. Emotional. Filled with heart, humor and breathtaking action scenes that trump nearly every Star Wars battle filmed to date, Rogue One is an astounding success that heralds a new, bold direction for Disney’s aggressive Star Wars film slate.
In a move that now seems genius, Lucasfilm drafted veteran Star Wars EU author James Luceno to pen a prequel novel to Rogue One. Catalyst was released on November 15—a full month prior to Rogue One’s opening—and was marketed as must-read material, either before or after viewing Rogue One. Catalyst’s must-read status isn’t hyperbole. Rogue One is a different film if you’ve read the book. It has even more depth, more pathos. And knowing these characters before they appear in the film adds an additional layer of tension and emotion to what unfolds on screen.
My son and I both went into Rogue One having read (or listened to) Catalyst. My wife, daughter and a few friends saw the movie without reading the book. The non-readers all had the same criticism—they felt that the movie started a bit slow. My son and I, on the other hand, felt like the movie started in the second act of a story that was already in progress. We knew Orson Krennic. We knew the Ursos and we knew why they were on an isolated system hiding from the nascent Empire.
I’m sure there are those who would say, “I shouldn’t have to read a book to properly enjoy a movie.” And in that sense, Catalyst is not essential to enjoying Rogue One or understanding the plot. But for the real deep Star Wars nerds (of which I am one), the release of Catalyst prior to Rogue One will be looked at as the moment when the EU and the main-line Star Wars franchise converged. Now, there’s just Star Wars. It is a model used to similar success in the Halo franchise. Sure, the games are enjoyable and tell complete stories even if you haven’t read the companion fiction, but if you have waded through the tie-ins along the way, what you’re getting out of the games is completely different.
Catalyst begins at the start of the Clone Wars and ends shortly after the formation of the Galactic Empire. It tells the story of both the Ersos and Orson Krennic, and touches on the shifting political landscape and the embryonic Rebellion taking hold throughout the galaxy. Galen Erso, masterfully brought to life by Mads Mikkelsen in Rogue One, is a fascinating character and the arc that ends with Rogue One seems almost inevitable having read Catalyst.
Galen is a character at war with himself, his ego and his two true loves—family and science. The Galen Erso we see at the start of Rogue One is vastly different from the “mad scientist” we meet in the first pages of Catalyst—the man so focused on his work that without his wife he’d forget to eat, sleep or transcribe his notes. Galen’s transformation begins in Catalyst, and that titular triggering event is undoubtedly the birth of Rogue One’s heroine, Jyn.
On the other side of the coin is Director Orson Krennic. Driven by power and paranoia, Krennic is a scientist-turned-spymaster who worms his way into a leadership role on the Death Star project. Krennic’s place in in the pantheon of classic Star Wars villains is cemented by the utterly fascinating performance delivered by Ben Mendelsohn. Much like Galen, the Krennic we see in Rogue One is the logical progression from his appearance in Catalyst. Whereas Galen’s doubts are external, Krennic is motivated by fear. Fear of losing the power and influence he’s amassed, fear of having credit for the Death Star stolen, and fear of failure. Much of Krennic’s fear is crystallized in the form of Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin—and with good reason. Tarkin’s firm grasp on the Death Star in Star Wars is no accident, and both Catalyst and Rogue One shed a great deal of light on how Gov. Tarkin secured his position.
Felicity Jones, as the older Jyn Erso, delivers one of the single greatest performances in the history of the franchise. Jones infuses Jyn with subtle blend of confidence, doubt and resolve that is both heroic and tragic on a galactic scale. Equally believable delivering rousing calls to battle as she is delivering one-liners, Jones’ portrayal hits the mark in every scene. There isn’t an ounce of the schmaltz or eye-rolling earnestness that occasionally pops up in the episodic entries into the saga. The reason, perhaps, is because Jyn knows who she is and what she must do.
The cast of supporting characters is diverse and fascinating. Several stunning performances—including standouts from a crazed Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera (first seen in The Clone Wars TV show and a presence in Catalyst), Alan Tudyk as a reprogrammed Imperial droid and Donnie Yen’s Force-mystic Chirrut Imwe—add to living world of Rogue One in every frame. Notable cameos from Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa and Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma serve as both connective tissue to the saga at large and reminders of the very real discord in the not-yet-dissolved Imperial Senate.
Diego Luna, as Rebel spy Cassian Andor, deserves special mention. Star Wars movies are known for their complex, layered performances. Until now. What Luna delivers is nothing short of revelatory. There is a tragic depth to Andor that has never been seen in a Star Wars movie before, and in a very real way Luna brings the horrors of war and oppression to the forefront. Rebellions don’t come without cost, and Luna’s performance bravely serves notice that even in the Star Wars universe, the butcher’s bill eventually comes due. The casual death is Star Wars films has always been difficult to rationalize, and Luna’s performance attacks that issue head-on, without the Force or a suit of armor as a crutch. Cassian Andor is a man—a man that has done horrible things in the name of the greater good, and Luna’s expressive performance doesn’t shy away from the toll waging war takes on the human spirit.
And then, there is Vader.
The Dark Lord of the Sith is presented on film in a new and decidedly frightening way. Ever the Emperor’s enforcer, the Vader of Rogue One is ruthless—a weapon wielded by Darth Sidious to great effect, as Krennic experiences first hand during his audience with the former Anakin Skywalker. I’ll not say more, as Vader’s small turn in the film is one of the best geek out moments of the entire 133 minutes.
Rogue One is a triumph. Gareth Edwards has managed to bridge the run-down look of the original trilogy with some of the exotic and lush locales of the prequels with a deft eye. The planets visited in Rogue One—particularly Jedah and Scarif—are living, breathing locales that are in deep in the throes of war—whether those involved believe the war has begun or not. One can’t help but think that Jedah will play a role in Episodes VIII and IX.
Yavin 4, the Rebel base from which the assault on the Death Star is launched, is fully operational throughout Rogue One. Edwards has populated Yavin 4 with so many references to other parts of the Star Wars universe that it almost too hard to keep up with them on one viewing. Familiar ships, droids we know, pilots and soldiers that play roles elsewhere—they’re all there.
Rogue One’s true genius lies in the overarching feeling of impending war that permeates every aspect of the film. For the first two hours, the tension builds and builds until the epic battle above Scarif erupts. The Battle of Scarif is truly the match that lights the fires of Rebellion. The film seamlessly ends mere minutes before Vader boards the Tantive IV above Tatooine. But for the last act of a courageous and unnamed Rebel soldier, the Death Star plans may have never reached Princess Leia, and the Rebellion would have been over before it began. It is poetry, and worthy of a far more in-depth discussion. The symbolism and allegory are delicately and beautifully presented in way most directors would be incapable of delivering.
Rogue One and Catalyst deliver on every level. As stories, they can stand on their own or be experienced together. The story of the Ersos and the Death Star is as epic and the characters as personal as any set of Star Wars characters that has come before. The look, feel and tone of the “galaxy far, far away” are both instantly familiar and unequivocally new, embracing the dynamism that has been a hallmark of the EU but has oft eluded Star Wars movies.
Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. It hits all the right notes, tugs all the right nostalgic heartstrings and serves notice, even more than The Force Awakens, that the Star Wars universe is once again a living, breathing thing. A saga filled with life, death, triumph, defeat, love, loss, hate and redemption.
A world filled with hope.
The Force is strong with this one.