by Jason McCullum
Spoiler Warning, but also the movie is like five years old at this point.
Truthfully, I have never been a massive Star Wars fan. I will never forget a six-year-old version of myself who was sat down to watch A New Hope with my parents for the very first time, only to shatter my mother’s heart by asking “Can we watch American Idol?” halfway through. Years later, we tried to watch them once again starting with Phantom Menace… enough said. I am also on record as arguing that The Rise of Skywalker is not only one of the worst movies of the 2010s, but perhaps of all time. Have I gone too far already? Probably.
However, with age, I have attempted to settle my opinions down, coming to understand that a majority of the saga is not bad, just not for me (except TROS). Still, that only regards about half of the films released as there is still a decent selection that I quite enjoy. A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back are not films that mean a lot to me, but are certainly entertaining and culturally significant. Revenge of the Sith is a pretty remarkable conclusion to the prequel trilogy after lackluster reception for Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. And, here comes the REAL hot-take… I actually like The Last Jedi… quite a bit. Maybe that deserves an article of its own if anyone is interested.
Still, none of those is the best Star Wars movie. That badge of honor goes to 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Let me explain…
The Force Awakens came out in 2015 and was the first theatrical Star Wars release in a decade. Upon first viewing, the film was an absolute delight to behold by delivering over two hours of pure excitement and adrenaline with a few twists thrown into the mix. If my memory is correct, I recall seeing the film numerous times in theaters. However, once the film hit the small screen, the cracks started to show. Firstly, as many had documented upon its release, the lack of originality presented was apparent as it was nothing more than a rehash of the plot from A New Hope. More frustrating, however, was that the film seemed to force the original trio of Luke, Leia, and Han to revert to old character traits that disrupted the development from the original films.
Yet, the demand for Star Wars content was still high both for the hardcore audience and casual fans such as myself, which is why we all turned up on Christmas Day to see Rogue One. Admittedly, the film did not rock me to my core upon first viewing, even if the in-theater experience was more than enjoyable. But the biggest thing I walked away from that holiday was the shock of “Oh my, a Star Wars movie just killed every character”, rather than looking into the minute details that help me elevate the film to such high regards. Upon returning to Rogue One in 2019 following the launch of Disney+, I was astounded by the creativity yet faithfulness of the movie. As it stands today, with The Skywalker Saga behind us, when comparing the films directly, it is no contest for what takes the gold.
Objectively, any Star Wars flick needs to present certain criteria to the audience to ensure that the setting and tone of the film feel right. Rogue One has moments of a classic heist movie, revolving around a band of outlaws infiltrating an Empire with the hopes of gaining top-secret information, in this case, plans for the Death Star. However, the film never phones it in on delivering plenty of X-Wings, sequences with the Death Star, Darth Vader appearances, and similar characteristics that define Star Wars for even the most casual viewer. Because of this, the film has a strong identity that is executed organically without trying too hard to be unique or relying too much on nostalgia. It just has a natural progression that ties the two ends of the spectrum together. The biggest thing that helps elevate this above other Star Wars movies is that the “cheesy” factors in the original and sequel trilogies are mostly eliminated.
It does not take long for the movie to capitalize on one of the greatest heist tropes which is the commonality between the characters on screen and the viewers in recliners. The movie does not feel a need to rely on Jedis and supernatural beings; it never forces a nobody to have deep relations to famously powerful characters. Rather, there is this glittering optimism that anyone with a will and a drive to do the right thing can incite real change in the world (or even the galaxy). By no means is this unbelievably unique for film in general, but it is pretty rare to see neutral beings as bold heroes in a Star Wars movie.
As long as the discussion is focused on characters, it is important to mention the diversity presented throughout Rogue One. There is no subtle way to put it, very little of Felicity Jones’ surrounding cast is white, and that just rarely happens in a galaxy far, far away. Controversy has stirred over the film that too much of the dialogue is eaten up by the male cast and the white actors. While this is certainly true and problematic, this is part of a much larger issue within film, as very little of the crew for Rogue One was non-white. As far as the actual story goes, it is both encouraging and refreshing to see the existence of beings in space stretch beyond a typical slew of white men. All around, the personas that the cast adopts both physically and mentally feel as though it is reaching a hand out to viewers around the world, showing that a hero can be anyone and can come from anywhere. It also helps that the film offers what feels like ten different heroes to help get this point across, making it almost impossible for viewers to miss.
If all of that was not enough, Rogue One concludes the film with quite literally the most incredible ending in any Star Wars movie ever… seriously! Whoever had the wonderful idea for the entire main cast to die, with the two leads holding each other as they go deserves a massive raise because it is epic. Not only is it shocking for a film series that is usually so light-hearted to end its latest film on such a dour note, but it is also an emotional whirlwind. It comes across as such a shocking conclusion but also one that makes so much sense, helping to clean up the timeline of characters heading into A New Hope. In all honesty, maybe more prequels should consider this as their ending.
By no means do I want to argue that this is one of the best movies ever made or that, because of it, all other Star Wars movies are bad. I cannot stress enough that my lack of interest in Star Wars as a series has much more to do with me than it does the quality of the film. However, speaking on a critical level, in terms of the variety of movies the ongoing saga has offered us, Rogue One balances so many things so well. As stated earlier, it feels characteristically like a Star Wars movie that a hardcore fan would enjoy while still offering plenty of finesse to lure in a casual viewer. The films that followed would go too far to one extreme: Last Jedi tried too hard to be unique while Rise of Skywalker catered too much to the fans that it came off as degrading. Rogue One is perfectly balanced. Yes, the writing could be better and there are plenty of plotholes that could use some cleaning up. But all in all, it’s a pretty damn good movie, and certainly the greatest cinematic achievement the Star Wars franchise has offered us… yet.