When Disney acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise, it was a given that the entertainment behemoth would exploit the property to its fullest extent.
No other company matches Disney’s cross-platform media and entertainment reach. Movies, TV, books, comics, toys, merchandise, video games and theme park attractions are all part of a shrewdly coordinated approach. Disney’s announcement that fans could expect lots of new Star Wars movies was equally exciting and frightening. Fans are all too aware of what can happen when a piece of art they love is ruthlessly commoditized.
To some extent, the first entry in Disney’s Star Wars onslaught, new trilogy kick-off The Force Awakens, reassured a lot of people. It was rousing and satisfying in all the right ways and its flaws were minor and easily overlooked. So if the main new trilogy seemed to be on solid footing, what did that mean for the various spin-off movies that Disney announced?
For some time, fans had no idea what to expect from Rogue One: A Stars Wars Story. Disney announced it was a self-contained story and would not generate a sequel. More recently, fans learned it was set shortly before the original Star Wars (now commonly referred to as “Episode IV: A New Hope”).
Rogue One demonstrates that just because a movie is part of a massive franchise leveraging project doesn’t mean it can’t also be a good piece of filmmaking.
On the surface, Rogue One gives fans all the trappings they want. Interesting new characters, droids, aliens and planets abound. There are cool new space ships, fighter vessels and space stations. Old favorites from the franchise pop up or are referenced in ways that are fun without being too much. The fight scenes, major battles and action sequences are well-staged and rousing.
Beneath that top level, though, is a rather interesting movie. The core of the new characters are likeable and compelling. We get enough of their stories to get a good understanding of them and why their mission is important. Rogue One boasts an excellent cast, including notable actors like Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelson and Forest Whitaker, who infuse feeling and purpose into their scenes.
Director Gareth Edwards brings a lot of finesse to action/adventure filmmaking. Rogue One looks great and hums with energy and vitality. But it also can be far moodier than other entries in the franchise, in very agreeable ways. There’s a decent bit of humor mixed in, but a surprising amount of pathos that feels genuine instead of troweled on for faux significance.
In addition, Rogue One feels like it has a reason to exist. Many studios have churned out forgettable franchise placeholders because they’d committed to releasing a movie at a certain time. That was a certainly a danger for this movie. Instead, Rogue One has a specific mission, filling in some rather crucial bits of the backstory of the original movie that, up until now, fans had mostly had to take for granted. Fleshing out that part of the saga, giving it a heart and some soul, in a tight, focused film, does more than just shake down fans for the price of admission.
It gives them something worth seeing, that adds to the franchise instead of leeching from it. What could have been a mere commercial exercise becomes a creative one. Art and commerce can co-exist. It gives fans hope for the array of Star Wars movies yet to come.