In 1977, George Lucas released his first “Star Wars” film – the one that, in time, would rank fourth in the series and be dubbed, somewhat awkwardly, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.” As a consequence, cinema changed.
Forget the product tie-ins that made Lucas a fortune. The very movies themselves made Hollywood realize that its audience was skewing ever younger, was hungry for better-designed special effects, was more willing to see adventure-laced science-fiction and would pay to see an ongoing movie franchise – one, in this case, bearing a specific “Star Wars” brand.
One of the characteristics of that brand was the sense of safety and comfort it imparted. “Star Wars” had its villains: The knight of the Dark Force, Darth Vader, is one of cinema’s great villains. But at heart, Lucas wasn’t all that different in temperament from Walt Disney. Gone was the hard edge of the dystopian study “THX-1138.” The first three “Star Wars” releases in specific were more like “Treasure Island in Space”: the sense of fun and adventure eclipsed the films trio’s slight threat of danger.
Now, though, we live in a different era. And today’s “Star Wars” entry – namely Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” – has a different feel. Yes, the film has most of the standard conceits: the basic look of the alien worlds, the quick-cut filmmaking style, the sweeping musical score. Yet the overall look is grittier, and the special effects – demonstrating the advances that have been made over the past four decades – are nearly flawless.
The big difference, though, is in theme. And, ultimately, in tone. Boasting a familiar beginning, one that apes “A New Hope,” “Rogue One” shows us the character of Jyn Erso being painfully separated from her parents. Then a cut to 15 years later, when Jyn – now played by Felicity Jones – is recruited by the Rebel Alliance to find her father, Galen Erso, who it turns out, is the chief designer of the planet-destroying Death Star. Unbeknownst to Jyn, her erstwhile partner, Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna), has been ordered to assassinate the elder Erso.
To explain more would give too much away. It’s enough to say that “Rogue One,” for all its own collection of personal tales, is essentially a prequel to “A New Hope” – with Galen’s Death Star plans being the McGuffin.
Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy do live up to franchise standards by adding in a bit of comedy, with the droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) delivering sarcastic asides. Also, the duo of the blind warrior monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and the mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) have their own comic moments.
But Cassian shows his dark sense of situational ethics early on, and Jyn has been twisted by her childhood betrayals. Both only gradually unite in common purpose – a purpose ultimately requiring the kind of sacrifice that definitely is not Disneyesque.
The upshot: Not all “Star Wars” fans will embrace “Rogue One.” In so many ways, though, it does fit the tenor of our time.