An entry like Rogue One is pretty risky in a series like Star Wars. These movies are built on formula and repetition (George Lucas famously insisted that The Phantom Menace was supposed to “rhyme” with A New Hope) and rarely take bold dramatic leaps. Sure, fanboys like me know about the decades of novels and video games — now de-canonized by Disney — that fill in continuity gaps and tell the tales of characters and events not covered by the main series. But releasing the first cinematic Star Wars story not exclusively focused on the exploits of the Skywalker family is a big deal. Hell, that Lucasfilm actually green-lit another Star Wars prequel showed serious balls, and their insistence that Rogue One would be a WWII-style epic demonstrated their willingness to at least crack (if not entirely break) the mold. They may not necessarily have succeeded — three viewings in, and I still think Rogue One is a bit of a mess — but the film’s value in the Star Wars lore comes from its ability to strip the series of its moral compass and ask serious questions about why we fight these wars in the first place.
Of course (and as always), this discord also extends to the Empire. First, there’s Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) —Star Wars’ J. Robert Oppenheimer — forced to compromise both his principles and his genius in order to save his family. Next, the sniveling Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) expects his supervision of the Death Star project to propel him up the ranks, specifically past his chief rival, Grand Moff Tarkin (creepy uncanny valley version of Peter Cushing). Krennic is a fascinating character deserving of much more than the time Rogue One affords him: his obsession with unilateral force (exemplified in the Death Star itself) illustrates the Empire’s key weaknesses and foreshadows its eventual demise. Krennic is great because he gradually discovers that subordinate infighting breeds inadequate leadership and, though his scene with Darth Vader feels forced and yields nothing of narrative importance, it shows how frustrating it can be to serve masters with limited and indistinct visions. Speaking of Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith’s super depressing bachelor castle on Mustafar could be read as a sign of his conflicted state of mind, a kind of forced exile into the very evil that corrupted Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith.
*If only Saw had been there to back Jyn up! Too bad he was busy dying for no reason at all!