By Michael Tessler
Ever wish you could celebrate Christmas each and every day? That’s how I can best describe my childhood dream of receiving a new “Star Wars” film each and every year. What seemed like an impossibility back then has suddenly become an astonishing reality. Thanks to Disney’s acquisition of every creative thought mustered by George Lucas, fans can now enjoy an annual installment of the most successful film franchise in cinema history.
At AMC Loews 17 in Stony Brook on Friday, Nick Acampora and his daughters Elizabeth and Melanie sat together in anticipation for the premiere of Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” “We’ve got a family connection with the Force,” joked Acampora, a Port Jefferson resident and community historian. Though all smiles, his daughters were bitterly divided between which was their favorite “Star Wars” film (of course, we all know it should be “The Empire Strikes Back”). Despite some debate, all could agree that “Star Wars” is the perfect escape from reality.
Just a few rows away were two grown men named Mike, a father/son duo, both wearing expressions of childlike wonder in anticipation for the new film. The elder Mike had enjoyed the original “Star Wars” film (later titled “A New Hope”) back in 1977 when he first saw it in theaters. The “Jedi master” and his “padawan” have been to every “Star Wars” premiere together since “Attack of the Clones,” released in 2002. They take enormous pride in having a better relationship than their “Star Wars” counterparts Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
Sitting next to me was my childhood best friend Matthew and, in spirit, my late best friend Brandon. For us, “Star Wars” was more than just a film series, it was the basis for our friendship. Countless days in the backyard were spent dueling with plastic toy light sabers, building the LEGO Millennium Falcon brick by brick, and arguing for hours over fan theories and proper pronunciations of Jedi names. As Darth Vader appeared on screen for the first time in over a decade in “Rogue One,” Matthew and I paused for a moment, looking at one another. For that brief second we saw each other not as adults but as the little boys we once knew a long time ago … in a galaxy far, far away.
THE (SPOILERIFIC) REVIEW
By Kevin Redding
“Rogue One,” the first in what promises to be a series of Star Wars-related anthology films, is a risky experiment in that its plot — based on the first two paragraphs of the original’s opening crawl — requires it to forever change the way we watch “A New Hope.”
In telling the story of how the plans needed to destroy the Death Star wound up in the hands of Princess Leia and eventually kick-start the adventures of a blonde farm kid named Luke, “Rogue One” is of course a prequel, which is a dirty word among many “Star Wars” fans.
But Disney, for the most part, knows what the diehards want to see — practical sets and creatures, Tie fighters and X-wings, and the (ridiculously satisfying, vicious and get-on-your-feet-and-growl-like-a-wookie-worthy) return of the biggest, baddest villain in the galaxy, among other familiar faces. The last half of “Rogue One” sets up the start of “A New Hope” masterfully, so much so that if the closing credits of the former and opening crawl of the latter were eliminated, it would work seamlessly as one long adventure.
But I definitely thought it took a while for “Rogue One” to reach its great moments. As we spend time with a ragtag team of new characters, I couldn’t help but want to see what the old standbys were up to instead. This “Star Wars Story” centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a slightly dull heroine whose father unwillingly engineered the planet-destroying weaponry on the Death Star while under the diabolic eye of the Empire’s Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).
As Erso later finds out, her father intentionally compromised the Death Star so it could easily be destroyed (by Luke in “A New Hope”), thus cleverly correcting one of the biggest plot holes in the original film: Why would the Empire build this elaborate, clearly-expensive space station that can be blown to smithereens so easily?!
Erso finds herself the resilient leader of a group of Rebels who band together to get the job done. Alongside her is Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who’s sort of the no-fun straight man throughout, K-2SO (perfectly voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid that doesn’t know any better than to say exactly what’s on its mind (or in its circuits) to marvelous and hilarious effect, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a Force-sensitive blind warrior who takes down a lot of stormtroopers with little to no effort and is by far the best new addition to the “Star Wars” universe of the human bunch, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s loyal partner, and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a former Imperial pilot gone rogue.
It’s great to see the inclusion of Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits, reprising his role from the prequel trilogy) and some of the Rebel pilots from the original that were implemented into the spectacular battle scenes on display here. Where the film really shines, however, is in the villain department. Personally, I was blown away at how Edwards and company resurrected the late-great Peter Cushing through a stunning display of CGI and motion capture to give Grand Moff Tarkin, the ruthless Imperial leader in “A New Hope,” a substantial role.
But what brought me to the theater in the first place was knowing that I’d be seeing Darth Vader be Darth Vader on the big screen again, in all his James Earl Jones-voiced glory. It’s really incredible and overwhelming to see. His two scenes, while extremely short, are worth the price of admission, especially the one in the final moments of the film, which will forever change how we see him in the rest of the saga. If nothing else, “Rogue One” reclaims Vader as the powerful and dangerous threat we were always told he was, and then some.
“Rogue One’s” greatest attribute is that it somehow manages to make “A New Hope” an even greater film. Admittedly, the first thing I did when I got home was rewatch the 1977 classic. This connective tissue provides compelling emotional subtext to the famed original opening crawl. While a bit clunky in its pacing and struggle to give us new characters to really feel for, “Rogue One” has proven “Star Wars” can survive outside the saga, delivering to fans compelling stories that only further embellish the brilliance of Lucas’ original vision. And if you don’t like this one so much, just wait until next year … and the year after that…and the year after that.