Open Rebellion - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the Best Blockbuster of the Year.
Any real edge to the storytelling in the original theatrical version Star Wars was most famously ousted in 1997 when George Lucas decided he no longer wanted Han Solo to "shoot first", making his most roguish and dangerous character instantly more kid friendly and potentially commercial. I'm sure after decades Ewoks and Gungans almost anything would feel edgier or more dangerous in Lucas' universe, but with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, director Gareth Edwards has made a movie that manages to push you out of your comfort zone and back into a place where it's possible to watch your hero murder someone in cold-blood or see your loved ones burnt to a crisp by the Galactic Empire. For fans that have waited since the end of The Empire Strikes Back for Star Wars to travel back into dark territory (without Hayden Christensen anyway), then Rogue One has definitely got you covered.
I've got to say, the thing that most worried me on the run up to the film was whether or not the world building would be up to par with the rest of the series, but right off the bat Edwards and company put those fears to rest as that darkness I was talking about permeates the whole file. This is still the Star Wars universe that I love, though; lush with detail from top to bottom from the occupied city of Jedha to the beaches of Scarif to a Blade Runner-style trading post built in-between two asteroids. Edwards has always imbued his pictures with equal parts gritty realism and the fantastic, and by following George Lucas' "used future" mantra, Rogue One carries on that streak with aplomb.
Take Jedha for instance, which to the naked eye looks very much like Tatooine or Jakku, but the big differences are in the details. Reflecting the occupied cities we ourselves see on the nightly news, Jedha is city wracked with fear, as the Empire uses terror to keep the population in line. Mos Eisley doesn't look like great place to live, but it looks positively bustling next to Jedha's war-torn homes and insurgent bombings. In fact, there's a sequence in which a little girl is caught in between the combatants of a firefight that is one of the scariest scenes in any of these films.
Yet, Edwards isn't all gloomy realism either, and doesn't shy away from filling this world with incredible aliens and robots to gawk at. I love every frame of this picture is packed with details and every creature looks like it has some sort of amazing backstory. Thankfully, in the best traditions of this series, most look like they're made with practical effects. In Star Wars terms, the work here feels much more "Cantina Sequence" than "Podrace".
In addition, the Godzilla director has filled this film with the most multicultural cast of humans to ever grace a galaxy far, far away. Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso cements that this new era of Star Wars has finally shaken off its "boys club" past to truly embrace diversity and female empowerment. Erso is a rough-neck hero, defiant, and by far the meanest character in this movie, but this isn't just a female playing a male role. Jones is well-served by this script, making Jyn a rounded character that has had to become cold to survive in this universe. The best arc in the picture comes from this character finding her ability to care about ending the tyranny of the Empire, even though the Rebellion's ideals have cost her so much personally and left her an orphan of war.
The Rebellion has also cost Diego Luna's Cassian Andor, but with this character the cost has been his own humanity. Andor is quick with a gun in a way that yes, reminded me of "non-Special Edition" Han Solo, but also a lot like Sean Connery's Bond in Dr. No. e's a man ready to kill anyone in his way at a moment's notice, be that person friend or foe. All that matters to him is The Rebellion, which is why teaming him with Erso, who cares only for herself, is so compelling when they have to find information to stop the Empire's new ultimate weapon, The Death Star. The only "will they or won't they?" scenario here is whether or not these two will end up killing each other.
Along for the ride is the only "men on a mission" crew of 2016 that really matters (sorry Suicide Squad and Magnificent Seven). This is a ragtag wild bunch that includes K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial droid who has been reprogrammed, Bohdi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a pilot who recently defected to the Alliance, and finally Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus (Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang), two former Jedi Temple Guards looking for a new purpose in life. They're ready for anything the Empire can throw at them and then some.
In the tradition of tall, lanky sidekicks in space operas such as Chewbacca and Groot, Tudyk's K-2SO will undoubtedly end up most people's favorite character from the movie. The robot's dry humor and casually violent demeanor make for Rogue One's biggest laughs, and as cranky and condescending as he can get, you still can't help but love him. He may be a droid, but he's a million miles away from the English butler robots you've seen in this series up till now.
On the other hand, as a person of Asian descent who has literally been a Star Wars fan my entire life, I can't tell you how amazing it was to finally see Asian stars in this film and especially ones as incredible as Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang. This is a series that has long borrowed from Eastern culture, so putting these two in front of the camera just seems right as Chirrut and Baze steal nearly every scene they're in. I love their dichotomy, as Baze Malbus is a man who has given up on the Force after the fall of the Jedi and has chosen instead to believe in himself and his giant gun. He's a monster in the movie's action scenes, blasting troopers left and right and cutting them down like they were paper.
His loss of faith is also part of the reason that Chirrut Imwe is so fascinating, as Donnie Yen plays a literal blind monk who isn't a Jedi but is still Force-attuned and believes in the power of the Force as much as any Jedi in the series. Yes, he's happy to be on this mission to help destroy the Empire, but he's also on a personal mission to restore Baze's faith and the back and forth between the two is terrific. Now whoever got the idea to cast Donnie Yen as the Star Wars universe's Zatoichi is a certified genius and deserves a huge bonus this Christmas. Yen is positively on fire in every Rogue One scene he takes part in and gets some of the best fight scenes in the entire series as well as one of the biggest emotional beats in the film's final battle.
Speaking of that final battle, hats off to Gareth Edwards for orchestrating the wildest Star Wars combat since Return of the Jedi. This sequence is brutal and exciting and Edwards packs it full of memorable beats as AT-ATs battle troops on the ground while the Rebel fleet takes on Star Destroyers in space above Scariff. At once, Edwards manages to oscillate between an space battle worthy of the Battle of Endor while ground troops engage in a fantasy version of Saving Private Ryan, all while Andor and Jyn try to steal the Death Star Plans. The biggest testament to the director (and perhaps the many reshoots that took place) is that it all fits in tonally in this picture and while still making each sequence feel like they belongs in this series.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the movie's villains. While Commander Orson Krennic could have easily ended up a generic tar Wars villain, in the hands of Ben Mendelsohn the man is overflowing with pent up energy and frustration. Much like Captain Andor, Krennic is willing to kill anyone in his path, but instead of fighting for a higher cause, he cares only about himself. Unfortunately, in his path is also Darth Vader, who cares not about Krennic's feelings and being the most iconic villain in film history, makes Krennic feel petty and small in comparison. Vader also gets one of the most incredible scenes in the character's history, which has to be seen to be believed.
There are so many more aspects of this film to talk about, but suffice it to say that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not only the best blockbuster film of 2016, it will probably be my favorite film of the year period. This movie absolutely solidifies my belief in the direction at Lucasfilm at this time and if this is a sign of what is to come with these spin-off films then bring it on. Rogue One is a gritty, action packed, and exciting adventure that no big film of 2016 has been able to touch. It is so good it even manages to make the original Star Wars a better film, which I would have thought impossible.