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Review by C.J. Bunce

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story finally answers the question of what kind of movie you would get if Hollywood would only, finally, let a diehard fan direct a major franchise film.  For all the great cast of actors and heroic characters in this unique tie-in film that falls outside the episodic trilogies, the real hero turns out to be director Gareth Edwards.  Edwards does so many things right with Rogue One you’ll lose count, and the best of this is surprise after surprise of what is at the next turn.  And if you watched all the trailers that seemed to reveal all too much, surprise again, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  This is, without exception, the most fun movie in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back, despite its equally dark tone, and it has all the action of the original Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, fans immediately jumped at the chance of finding its place in the list of the best and worst of the prior six films.  Is Rogue One better than The Force Awakens?  In many ways, yes.  In other ways, such as the use of too many jumps between geographic road marker titles along the way and tightness of story plotting, Rogue One is probably a bit behind.  What fans really want to do is compare Rogue One to the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.  So how does it compare?  It really is too soon to tell.  The hype and excitement of any new blockbuster in a franchise you love makes you want to heap on the high praise.  Is The Force Awakens as good as we thought a year ago?  Fans will never agree.  But the fact Rogue One is worthy of the comparison to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back should be praise enough.

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The best thing about Rogue One is CGI and motion capture technology improvements.  The best kept film secret in several years should be kept for all to experience, and later we can all chat about it once everyone has had a chance to see the film.  Prepare to be impressed.  Technology is finally catching up with Connie Willis’s future Hollywood novel Remake.  Rogue One also has great writing–an issue that haunted the prequels.  The dialogue is smarter than probably all the past episodes.  The space battles aren’t superfluous like in Return of the Jedi and all of the prequels.  Every step in the film is in furtherance of the goal–find the plans to destroy the Death Star.  This is not a mere MacGuffin, this mission has gravity for everyone.  Delivered like an epic World War II era film, Rogue One is the best war movie of the franchise.

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Before seeing the movie I wrote down key questions that would need answered:  How do the heroes compare to the original trilogy?  How about the villains?  The new alien races?  The spaceship battles?  The epic quest?  For all of these, this is the franchise at the top of its game.  Cameos are fun and not out of place.  Easter eggs are everywhere–just watch for familiar actors from 40 years ago when the X-Wing pilots start shouting out their call signs.  Look for callbacks to the Tatooine cantina, too, and even a reference to Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.  From the trailers we knew Darth Vader would appear in the film.  But one of his scenes isn’t quite right–is it as simple as an odd change in costume design?  And John Williams is definitely missed as composer of the soundtrack.  Yes, Michael Giacchino pulls many queues from Williams, but if the film suffers a bit it’s the extra push with emotional highs and lows a spectacular score can bring.  We get plenty of great new costumes here, although it may be a bit overboard with many new Stormtrooper uniform variants peppered throughout–clearly they are there for toy sales, right?  They are a fun addition, but it makes viewers ask why we only saw standard Stormtroopers in Episodes IV, V, and VI.  And see if you can spot all those scenes from the trailers that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film!

For those that might think this is the darkest tale in the franchise, it’s not.  Nothing here is any darker than the original trilogy or the prequels.  Consider Darth Vader torturing his daughter in A New Hope, Luke slicing off his father’s head (albeit a ghost) in The Empire Strikes Back, Vader torturing Han Solo with needles in The Empire Strikes Back, Jabba the Hutt dropping a slave into a food cage for his pet rancor in Return of the Jedi, Anakin killing a bunch of kids and cutting off Count Dooku’s head in Revenge of the Sith, and Obi-Wan Kenobi leaving Anakin’s body to burn and die in Revenge of the Sith–nothing in Rogue One compares to the graphic, vile deeds of the original or prequel trilogies.  And yet it’s a great film about the horrors of war and the nature of rebellion.  Yes, there are dark scenes–think of wartime and each side grenading each other and shooting each other at point blank range.  But that’s really as graphic as it gets.

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As to the film’s underlying theme: terrorists = rebels.  You can’t help take away the clear message:  There are times when rebellion is necessary.  If that message wasn’t clear in A New Hope, the message is crystal clear in Rogue One.  Most adults understand the role of perspective in politics, history, and war.  Will kids understand?  Jyn Erso, and specifically Felicity Jones’s performance as Jyn Erso, will make it clear for any age to understand.  Rogue One is not a bit preachy, but there are some good lessons to be learned here.

High points of the film include Donnie Yen’s performance as an ultimate Samurai-type with his blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe.  Ben Mendelsohn is the perfect Imperial commander as Director Orson Krennic.  Mads Mikkelson provides a compelling performance as Jyn Erso’s father Galen, somehow evocative of Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace.  And Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO provides a refreshing version of the requisite Star Wars droid every episode needs.  Some motion capture performances were also superb, but we won’t reveal those here.

The long wait is over, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in theaters now.  Prepare to see this one a few times in the theater.

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