With a year's distance, it's easier to recognize—and even appreciate—Star Wars: The Force Awakens for what it is: a concerted effort by Walt Disney Studios to reorient their unwieldy, still fairly recently acquired franchise. Director J.J. Abrams was the right man for that job because his whole brand is about passing off over-meticulous simulation as self-aware homage—and after all, if the new Star Wars trilogy was to include the kind of fetish object he specializes in, its introductory chapter might as well be it.
Until now, there was no real reason to doubt that, say, Rian Johnson might build on the template that was laid out in a workmanlike fashion by Abrams and manage an Empire Strikes Back-level upgrade for his impending Star Wars: Episode VIII. And while that may yet come to pass, the evidence provided by Gareth Edwards's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first of the series's “anthology” films, suggests originality may not come easy going forward.
If there was any film in this Star Wars renaissance period with the promise of surviving as its own self-sufficient entertainment, this was it. And that isn't because the franchise's name is made subordinate to the rest of the film's title, or because it has no roman numeral, or even because it doesn't feature the iconic opening title crawl; it's because this story of a rebel faction breaking away from the fascism of the Empire and the politicking of the Rebel Alliance locates its power—or its potential for power—in a belief in the action of individuals. Not unlike Edwards's take on another franchise, 2014's Godzilla, Rogue One is at its best when it represents a kind of daisy chain of microaggressions from a host of characters working toward a common goal.
There's a welcome understatement to the way new characters enter mostly through action, minimizing exposition and emphasizing their assigned role within a tight, effective combat unit. Chinese writer-director Jiang Wen and Hong Kong martial artist Donnie Yen cultivate a mercenary-class chemistry as two aging guardians of “the force”; Felicity Jones brings a militant resolve to her role as a non-allied fighter; and a fresh-faced but world-weary Diego Luna, as a morally vexed Alliance lifer, represents perhaps the most openly vulnerable male character in the Star Wars universe. Each character is more interesting for the economy of development that Edwards affords them.
Unfortunately, that impulse would seem at odds with the apparent demands of the director's corporate overlords: Whatever momentum the new characters' story has is constantly compromised by prolonged plot detours intent on reintroducing the audience to old places and—in at least one egregious instance—reanimated old faces. This does more than compromise the integrity of Rogue One's plot; it undercuts its core ethic.
Edwards, conjuring his film more or less entirely from a single phrase excerpted from the opening credits of 1977's A New Hope (“Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star”), tries to frame Rogue One as an act of independence, a story that can stand apart from the franchise's oppressive mythology in much the same way as its characters choose to work independently from the Alliance to take down the Empire. But the director is left constantly fighting against Rogue One's built-in contradictions: Composer Michael Giacchino's score, for instance, starts out straying from John Williams's iconic theme music, but eventually coalesces around it. And while this narrative purports to be an original story about the struggles of a handful of renegades, the film subjugates that effort with what's become Disney's foremost agenda in reviving this franchise: pandering to an audience's easily stimulated sense of familiarity.
Edwards never stops fighting, right up until an impressively mounted coda that represents all that's right and wrong with his film in microcosm: a shift in focus to a whole new collection of individual fighters, a veritable passing-of-the-baton for the cause, followed quickly by an obvious and shallow bit of fan service. Rogue One is less the fetish object that The Force Awakens is because it at least has the ambitions to create its own character dynamics and plot routes rather than coast on existing ones. But its worst moments represent the most embarrassing of the franchise, and feel shoe-horned in as a way of working against that individualist vision. Edwards's film represents a well-meaning but frequently thwarted effort to bring creativity to an increasingly stagnating world. Call it Star Wars: Stand Alone Complex.
Gareth Edwards's exacting visual eye makes Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arguably the most aesthetically rich film in the Star Wars canon. The grimy underworld that Jyn and the other characters navigate at the beginning connotes a physical sense of dilapidation and wear that hasn't been seen in the franchise since its very first entry, and the transfer highlights the oily walls and filthy alleys of the early settings. Gradually, the earthen tones are replaced by the dutifully polished gloss of Imperial bases. The overall texture is largely one of muted naturalism, which makes the occasional bursts of color all the more striking as they flash across the screen.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround track places Michael Giacchino's score in the side speakers to keep its bombastic presence loud without overwhelming dialogue, while Foley effects are distributed in both front and rear channels to create an enveloping atmosphere. During the storm on Krennic's base, for example, the rain is mixed so subtly around the entire speaker configuration that it almost sounds to be coming from outside one's own home. The action scenes rumble intensely, and dialogue is always clean and coherent in the front speakers, even when the score swells around it.
This three-disc set's extras are all found on the second of the two Blu-ray discs, though the many featurettes listed give a false impression of a deep dive into the film's making. Grouped under the broad heading "The Stories," the videos cover various aspects of the production; in one, ILM's John Knoll reveals how he came up with the film's concept, and in others the actors reflect on the new characters to the Star Wars universe. Each video only runs a few minutes, never providing more than cursory overviews of any given topic, and they leave the impression that a single, hour-long documentary could have covered ground more thoroughly.
Despite its insubstantial characters, Rogue One is an interesting entry in the Star Wars franchise, and the flawless A/V transfer of Disney's Blu-ray fully translates its aesthetic beauty.