Rogue One tries very hard to set itself apart from the standard Star Wars episodes. The film is certainly contemporary and topical in its subject matter. While there’s never really any question that the Empire’s actions are undeniably evil, the Rebellion is portrayed in shades of gray. The visual allegory of hooded rebel soldiers attacking an Imperial convoy in the middle of a crowded city dominated by a religious temple is hard to miss. Granted, this particular group of rebels is presented in the film as an extremist faction that has broken off from the main rebellion, but it’s still a gutsy move for a franchise that has historically portrayed good and evil as absolutes.
Despite the fact that Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso serves as the film’s main protagonist, Rogue One is much more of an ensemble piece than former Star Wars entries. For the most part this works, although as a byproduct we’re inevitably left wishing that some characters get screen time. Rogue One’s main villain, Director Orson Krennic, is also distinct from usual Star Wars fare. He is neither a Sith Lord nor does he even speak with a British accent (although he does sport a billowing white cape and uniform that could rival Vader’s costume on a runway). Instead, he’s a particularly sociopathic middle-management type clawing his way up the ranks. In 2017, it seems somehow fitting that a Star Wars villain is motivated by rabid office politics rather than devotion to the Dark Side.
There is also a miniature controversy over whether the movie contains “anti-Trump” scenes because it is about a group of racially diverse humans, aliens and droids fighting against an authoritarian dictatorship run primarily by elderly white men in Nazi-esque uniforms. So in a sense, it is, but that says more about the real life political movement with similarities to a cartoonishly evil planet-destroying fictional government than it does about Rogue One intending to make a political statement.
As much as I enjoyed The Force Awakens, the stakes in Rogue One seem higher. There’s very little “franchise building” here, and refreshingly, no Marvel-style after-credits scenes teasing the next entry in the series. Rogue One is comfortable in its place in the larger Star Wars mythos, but it has one story to tell, and by the end of the film, there’s the sense that this particular story is over. It is also the second Star Wars movie in a row that seems intent on leaving its audience emotionally trashed by the time they leave the theater, a tradition that began with The Force Awakens, which (spoiler alert!) features the death of Han Solo.
When the Death Star destroys Leia Organa’s homeworld of Alderaan in A New Hope, we’re treated to a massive green laser and a large explosion. Yes, Leia looks upset, but she gets over it almost instantly. So do we. However, when the Death Star fires in Rogue One, the sound is muted, and the scene is intercut with an emotional scene of Jyn watching a final message from her father, the Death Star’s head designer. Krennic, watching the expanding destruction from onboard the Death Star, comments, “Oh, it’s beautiful.” And it is, but not for the reason he means. It’s scenes like this one that make Rogue One the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back.