[note: minor spoilers abound for Rogue One.]
I saw Rogue One, the new Star Wars film, last weekend. I won't bury the lead: Rogue One is a better movie than The Force Awakens. This is thanks to a more nuanced story than light vs. dark, with a grittier approach and a grander sense of scale. Gareth Edwards knows how to craft a film.
From a formal perspective, Rogue One is superior in almost every way from the production design to the setpieces. Every frame looks like it's about to burst at the seams. Edwards packs as many different aliens, costumes, props, and fine details into each shot as he possibly can. Rogue One is really the first Star Wars movie to convince me there's an infinitely diverse galaxy living and breathing outside the immediate story.
The Force Awakens is a very safe film. It's essentially a reboot where J.J. Abrams wipes clean George Lucas' prequel sins with the help of a tighter and more focused story more akin to the scrappy pulpiness of A New Hope. As promising as TFA was as far as future films are concerned, I wanted more than character origins and the predictable beats of a decidedly un-risky film. The Force Awakens, for its gigantic budget and aspirations, feels so small after watching Rogue One.
Edwards knows scale. His understanding of the basics of film's visual language is obvious. I knew that about the director even before I saw Rogue One. There's something missing from Abrams' action scenes. They're unmotivated to do anything but move the story along. TFA has a couple great characters to rest on, not to mention the past six movies to rest on as well. Rogue One doesn't quite have that luxury. And that's where its status as a spin-off side story becomes a boon.
Bereft of that iconic opening crawl, Rogue One is still a Star Wars film. But it's a new breed. An experiment that pays off. The characters in Rogue One are all but doomed. Most of the cast was never mentioned in the original trilogy--an almost guaranteed death sentence. With no sequel(s) to set up for a la Marvel or, hell, Star Wars, Rogue One has room to breathe. It has the liberty to finish the arcs it started while still winking at the viewers who know what's coming next. The Verge published a great piece about why Rogue One feels more complete as a piece of art. That's because it's allowed to end.
I rather like Disney's idea of alternating releases between the main trilogy and spin-offs. Rogue One's sheer quality as a film has sold me on it. If I have to sit through two more, admittedly enjoyable, but mostly innocuous entries like The Force Awakens, it'll be worth it. Rogue One was allowed to take risks with everything from its tone to its bittersweet ending. If the other two standalone films, starring Han Solo and Boba Fett (fingers are still crossed) deliver on their promises of pushing Star Wars into new visual and narrative territory, I'll be satisfied.
Go see Rogue One! Support a talented director's work, support a film with an effortlessly diverse cast, and support a refreshing take on the Star Wars canon.