A good proxy test for the tone of a Star Wars movie is the demeanor of the featured droids. R2-D2 and C-3PO carry out a cheerful buddy comedy in a movie that is about friendship and hope triumphing over evil. BB-8 is a version of R2-D2 that’s been multiplied by itself several times over until it’s nothing but a roly-poly kids toy, there to enhance the “Holy shit, I’m watching a Star Wars movie again!” high of Force Awakens. The soldier droids from the prequels were pointless and stupid, and, well, you get the idea.
K-2SO, the primary robot pal in Rogue One, is unlike any other droid Star Wars fans have spent time with. He cracks jokes, but they’re grim and straight-laced. When his handler inevitably gets into trouble, he gets his (metallic) hands dirty and murders himself some stormtroopers. He towers over the humans he shares the screen with and hums with a menacing energy, despite his stiff personality. Rogue One is the first film in the Star Wars canon that’s not part of the episodic structure, and it pays only token homage to the series’ childish origins. There’s a cynicism at the heart of Rogue One that the films it shares a universe with only ever managed to hint at in passing.
Make no mistake, Rogue One is still very much a Star Wars movie. It’s oriented around Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones), a heroine in the Skywalker mold. Her lineage (dad is an Important Guy) fates her into a crucial role in the Rebellion (super-spy), and she takes on an insurmountable task (steal the plans to the Death Star) with the help of her trusty band of quirky misfits (chief among them Diego Luna) who all shoot guns really well. They fly around a series of picturesque planets and dispose of rafts of stormtroopers; these are the broad strokes that audiences have come to expect from any Star Wars film. I won’t spoil it any more for you, but the grandeur of the caper will not be unfamiliar.
What sets Rogue One apart is its commitment to the granular. You probably don’t want to know all about the particularities of the galactic kyber crystal trade, but it was refreshing to a see a movie reveal even a sliver of how the utterly preposterous universe it exists in might function on a practical level. When the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ...” screen fades to black, you see a tiny transport ship, not a hulking Star Destroyer. Rogue One has been pitched over and over again as a capital-w War Movie which, word to Vox, seems too obvious to have to say, but where the rest of Star Wars conducts war as a grand space opera full of sweeping shots and universe-altering lightsaber parries, Rogue One portrays it as a claustrophobic nightmare where death is random and all you can hope for is an avenue of escape.
Director Gareth Edwards set the war on a handful of biomes, a few of which are new to the Star Wars universe. One of the more awe-inducing facets of Star Wars has been the seemingly infinite supply of gorgeous, complex planets (someone should make a game about this) its universe has on offer, and Rogue One offers craggy, rainswept volcanic plains, North African rugged high desert, and an idyllic palm tree-studded atoll (at least, until all hell breaks loose).
Edwards has a knack for counterposing objects as a way of offering a sense of scale, and the Death Star-sized Star Wars universe is a fitting sandbox for him. You truly appreciate the whopping size of the Death Star once you see how small a TIE fighter is next to a Star Destroyer, and in turn how small a Star Destroyer is next to the parabolic antenna of the Death Star. When the Empire finally turns the AT-ATs loose in the third act, their size is made abundantly clear when they’re shown lurching through a palm tree forest and on top of a fleeing human horde (thankfully, AT-ATs have the among the stupidest designs of any science fiction weapon. Why you would give your laser-rocket Trojan horse cavalry such shitty knees?).
Like any decent heist movie, Rogue One goes out of its way to include a near-montage scene where the crew is assembled and the plan is laid out very explicitly. The supporting cast around Luna and Jones doesn’t have all that much to do, and they keep the scheme moving with varying degrees of success. Donnie Yen is unnerving as a blind religious zealot who finds himself jobless and radicalized after the Empire nukes his temple. Riz Ahmed spends the movie wide-eyed and drenched in sweat, which is about the opposite of Wen Jiang’s Cool Guy With Big Gun. Forest Whitaker spends his few minutes of screen time wheezing his way through stoned-out paramilitary mumbo jumbo. It works, somehow.
Even if this is lowest-stakes Star Wars movie made to date, Rogue One still carries the weight of significant expectations. Frankly, I was worried it would be butt. The red flags were there: the trailers revealed too much, chunks of the movie were infamously re-shot, and Edwards’s last movie (the 2014 reboot of Godzilla) was a warmed-over version of Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus that had only slightly more emotional connective tissue. Rogue One, thankfully, is not butt. It rumbles and shakes and bleeds more than you’d expect a product of this franchise to, but it’s still a movie with treatises on the value of hope and pump-up speeches before laser battles. It’s just that those battles feel more real than they ever have before.