The Force is with us as ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY delivers amazing video and audio on Blu-ray.
By Matt Cummings
Sometime during the Summer of 2016, we all became aware of an unthinkable scenario, one that could alter the structure of our world forever. And while that could have included the outcome of the US Presidential Election, I’d dare say that Star Wars fans were also stressing over what sounded like truly bad news: entire sections of the highly-anticipated ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY were being re-shot and an outside man (John Gilroy) was being brought in to re-edit the movie. Luckily, the 6 months of stress-eating that followed was largely unnecessary, as Disney/Lucasfilm delivered one of the top films of 2016 as well as the top-grossing film of the year. Its arrival on Blu-ray reminds us why we emerged from the theater so elated at the results, delivering amazing video and audio, as well as a slew of special supplements that encourage many moments of cautiously vibrant celebration.
As the shadow of The Galactic Empire continues to sweep far and wide across the galaxy, the infant Rebellion learns of a new weapons project, code-named The Death Star, a space station that can destroy entire planets. They also learn that its chief builder Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) might be sympathetic towards its destruction, having watched his wife die at the hands of Krennic (Ben Mendlesohn) before being dragged back to the Empire to finish the project. What Krennic doesn’t know is that Galen’s daughter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) survived and has been recruited by The Rebellion to uncover sensitive information about The Death Star’s weakness. Caught in the middle of an escalating galactic conflict, Jyn recruits a ragtag team to secure the plans including a spiritual blind monk (Donnie Yen), his gun-toting partner (Wen Jiang), the Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Together, they will encounter the deadly hand of The Empire, its top enforcer, and a growing universe of rebellious sympathizers who realize that The Empire and its newest weapon must be stopped at all costs.
ROGUE ONE is a celebration on almost every level, based partly on the risks it takes to blur the lines between Rebellion and Empire. We’ve been raised that the Rebels were a people pushed into a corner, a victim of a long-term abusive relationship who was struggling to simply get away. Instead, this has become a Rebellion of murderers that crossed the line a long time ago, having sent their agents to commit war crimes in the name of ending The Empire’s reign. In so doing, they’ve become nearly as cutthroat as their enemy, as evidenced in one of the first scenes with Andor. But we also learn more about the political situation within the Star Wars universe, that a costly war is raging without Jedi to protect those caught in the middle. It’s in this gray area that Erso and her team exist, in some ways making them more of a terrorist outfit than a freedom-seeking friendly people. That’s a powerful moment for those of us who’ve been there since 1977, particularly as we near the film’s rather surprising end. People will die in this struggle for freedom, and ROGUE ONE doesn’t shy away from that.
As much as Lucasfilm 2.0 wants you to think ROGUE ONE is a standalone tale, it rests nicely between EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH and EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE. It does what Lucas’ prequels were completely impotent at achieving: granting this universe with a soul instead of hitting us over the head with over CG-ed environments. In ROGUE ONE, these characters are the damaged people I spoke of before, granted with a particular skillset but largely unemployed by The Rebellion, who sees some of them – especially Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) – as dangerous extremists who could kill the growing pushback by planets eager for their freedom. All of that changes when they learn of The Death Star, as if sending this space-based Dirty Dozen is the last and only option on the table. It’s the moment when The Rebellion becomes a cause for action, because their job isn’t to win our hearts anymore but to perform a job. Lucas never demonstrated that vision with the prequels, and it’s just the tip of the creative iceberg to which we’re treated.
ROGUE ONE is also incredibly reverential to the original trilogy, going so far as to digitally or practically re-create nearly a half-dozen familiar characters, each with varying degrees of success. We’ve seen such attempts before, from CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR to ANT-MAN, but this is the first time we get extended moments with them. They’re not there as mere plot devices but play important roles which move us deeper into this story. Through one of them, we learn a lot about Imperial politics – without the minutia prevalent in the prequels – and the effort they’re already making to secure their power as The Death Star comes online. One character seems ready to take his rightful place at the top, while another is scheming to deny him (read his book by James Luceno if you haven’t). That’s the Empire as it’s laid out in the Extended Universe of books and videos, and it’s done with a polish that reminds us of the acumen behind its director.
Say what you want about 2014’s GODZILLA (I loved it), but Director Gareth Edwards shines as ROGUE ONE’s quarterback, even if rumors of Gilroy stepping in to change the film’s direction is true. Edwards directs his high-powered offense so gracefully at many points and then stunningly brutal in others but doesn’t whipsaw between the two. People will die either defending the Empire or supporting the Rebellion, and Edwards takes the gloves off to show a galaxy at war, sometimes within itself. Add The Death Star (which Edwards presents as both a pleasant moonrise and a harbinger of death) as well as characters like Darth Vader and you can’t help but want to hug this man for getting all of them so right. He returns Vader to the status of menacing enforcer (redeeming the smudge which Lucas branded him with in SITH), whose entrance is an homage to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Edwards and Writers Chris Weitz and Gilroy get Vader, showing that new Lucasfilm lead Kathleen Kennedy also understands him. They also appreciate the design aesthetic Lucas gave this universe, outfitting a new and terrifying breed of Stormtrooper in a great first scene, while giving us more background behind Yavin IV in later sequences. They introduce us to more worlds in the first 10 minutes than from any other movie period, a welcome respite from the continual sand dunes of Tatoonie.
ROGUE ONE isn’t without its problems. Perhaps the biggest complaint is a simple one: because this is so neatly tucked in, the lack of a crawl (and thus no John Williams theme) is jarring. Since then, fans have created their own, and its absence is deeply felt with the theatrical version feeling a bit jarring. It’s a little slow in the second act, and some of the interests behind Krennic’s motives and history with the Ersos aren’t as clear as they could have been. It’s also clear that ROGUE ONE was re-shot/re-edited, as evidenced by scenes in the trailer looking completely different (or not included at all) from the final product. Composer Michael Giacchino, who took over Alexandre Desplat due to scheduling conflicts – delivers a solid enough score to fit between SITH and A NEW HOPE, including a very good love theme that resonates throughout the film. He also blends a lot of Williams’ tones into his score, linking it rhythmically to its brethren. But it’s not a consistently great score, featuring too many deserts within its more habitable environs. It’s issues like these that keep it from knocking on the door of the vaunted trinity (that being the original trilogy), but it’s all minor complaints for a film that sets its sights very high and mostly achieves its goals. If you (like I) wondered whether there was enough interest (or story) in this extended universe, the answer is an emphatic yes, with attention made to big outdoor set pieces, fallen Jedi temples, and that Death Star almost playing the devil incarnate. And although we all know how it ends, ROGUE ONE holds us in a Force choke until the very end.
Jones elevates her Hollywood street cred by imbuing Erso with an early care-less attitude, which becomes sharply focused after she learns that father Galen is alive. A holographic moment with her father leaves her devastated, and Jones suddenly becomes the sympathetic hero we remember when Han Solo made a similar transition. This time, it’s far more elegant, spurred on by Luna. He gains our appreciation as Andor, who develops from moralistically gray into a true hero, pushing Yen to deliver perhaps the best performance of his career. K2SO brings the perfect amount of snide droid comments – like an even snippier C3PO – relieving some of the emotional heft at just the right times. I’ve always loved Mendelsohn and with Krennic he goes beyond the typical baddie until of course he meets up with Vader. And when that moment arrives, you can feel the tension on screen, something that Edwards again delivers to near perfection.
ROGUE ONE plays almost like a mix of STAR WARS’ greatest hits while developing great new villains like Krennic for us to hate. But more importantly, the film forces us to take a side, demanding we get our skin into the game to fight for something important. Considering the new charged political climate that’s overtaken our country, a story about a war in a galaxy far, far away feels more relevant than ever.
Disney presents ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY in a glorious MPEG-4/AVC transfer that is interstellar in every way. Shot with a collection of digital cameras – including the Arri Alexa 65 – the movie has been altered to include digital filmic grain without losing a single ounce of clarity. Everything from Jedha and Yavin IV to Y-Wings, X-Wings, and Jalen’s ship are richly-colored and authentic looking. Jedha’s desert features show off weathering and layering, blending beautifully with the CGI Star Destroyer hovering above the Jedi Temple. While the screen is a little too dark during interior scenes and on Eadu, things radically improve in space scenes and all exterior shots. There, detail jumps at you from all sides, revealing chips in painted sets, detail along the Star Destroyers’ superstructure, and deck plating during the assault inside Scariff’s data center. There’s so much dirt and grime in this universe, and the print shows it all off, as contrasted by the cooler clean lines of Imperial Stormtroopers and their facilities. The many digitally-recreated characters look quite realistic, further demonstrating Disney’s acumen for photo-realistic beings was not confined to 2016’s THE JUNGLE BOOK. Human features are bright and authentic, including Mendelsohn’s quite yellow teeth against his prim-white uniform. Jones’ hair shows off individual strands, while Chirrut’s blindness is a bit creepy in closeups. When Vader releases his red lightsaber near film’s end, it lights up the entire hallway, while engine thrust and laser beams never overrun the image. With so many chances at banding possible – especially as The Death Star creates an eclipse over Jedha – I have to commend Disney’s efforts to not only minimize but eradicate any chance of it appearing here. Black in star fields and in dark corners are fantastic in how deep they can become, mixing well with shadows in places like the hellish Mustafar. I can’t imagine what this will look like once it’s dressed up in 4K, but this print is so good we might not actually see much of a difference. Even with so many outstanding transfers already in 2017, it’s easy to proclaim ROGUE ONE’s reference quality the best of them so far.
Now this is an audio presentation. Disney’s ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY features a stellar DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundscape that proves you don’t need a fancy Dolby Atmos or DTS:X track to be absolutely successful. Starting with the center channel, dialogue is absolutely clear even though it’s not separated from the other effects and music. Still, you can easily hear Chirrut’s “May the Force of others be with you” on Jedha, something I couldn’t hear even at my local IMAX. Left and right channels prioritize movements like TIE-Fighters and blasters, spreading them across the soundfield to reach their intended targets. Music by Composer Giachinno resonates beautifully throughout, offering a strong emotional punch to the story in several places. But as always, the true test of any transfer is the surround channel and the LFE, both of which perform flawlessly. The wind and rain on Eadu make you think you’re there with the team, while conversations on The Death Star and in the marketplaces at the Ring of Kafrene encourage you to buy whatever that cook is making when Andor is first introduced. Other atmospherics like ship traffic work well with the LFE which constantly bashes, brawls, and thumps from planet to planet and skirmish to full-out conflict. Things only get more intense as you get to the final act on Scarif, while the richness of smaller moments – like Jyn and Cassian’s disagreement over Eadu and Krennic and Vader’s ‘exchange’ – are just as momentous. Tracks like these are better the louder you crank it up, so let this one loose early and often, for it’s hands down the best transfer we’ve heard this year. It proves that while Atmos and DTS:X will eventually replace DTS-MA, we’re still just as content with a bold masterpiece like this one.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY is also rare for how it’s packaged for the home market. The release contains not one but two BD’s, the first of which makes up the movie itself; the second disc houses a vast series of supplements broken up under two sections: The Stories, and Rogue Connections. Everything here is in HD, but there’s no commentary track, which I discuss below:
- A Rogue Idea (9:00): A perfect place to discuss the differences between the original and modified cuts, we get instead some of VFX Supervisor John Knoll’s pitch for the film. Again, it’s not much and carefully crafted to leave out any mention of an alternate version, but it does show how big of a Star Wars geek Edwards is and how that affected the film’s production.
- Jyn: The Rebel (6:16): This begins a series of character close-ups, starting with the heroine. We learn about Jyn’s upbringing and personality as well as how the actress physically prepared for the role.
- Cassian: The Spy (4:14): Continuing down the same path, it’s time to discuss Luna’s portrayal of Cassian.
- K-2SO: The Droid (7:43): Perhaps the most entertaining and enlightening of the three, we turn to Tudyk’s performance and how he used elements of C-3PO during his motion capture performance. There’s a lot more to this one so I suggest you check it out.
- Baze & Chirrut: Guardians of the Whills (6:20): The duo relate their experiences on set, discuss how Chirrut’s faith is a repeating element throughout the Star Wars movies, and the way each actor played off each other.
- Bodhi & Saw: The Pilot & The Revolutionary (8:35): I love audition tapes, and here we get to see Riz Ahmed’s while he discusses crafting the character and how his fate plays out in the film. We then move to Whitaker, perhaps the one person who might have suffered a much larger cut of his character than the others.
- The Empire (8:18): For anyone not quite up to speed on all the baddies, this is a good 101 segment on several key Imperial faces. Galen, Krennic, Tarkin, and even Darth Vader are featured.
- Visions of Hope: The Look of Rogue One (8:24): Set production is another important aspect of designing a believable world, and here we learn about the care taken to make the worlds look used and even dirty and thus true to Lucas’ vision of a worn universe. Check out in this sequence how the Death Troopers evolved.
- The Princess & The Governor (5:49): Among the most controversial elements of the film, this highly insightful featurette focuses on digitally recreating these two critical characters.
- Epilogue: The Story Continues (4:15): Fans sit down to discuss the movie while images from the film’s premiere are shown. It’s an interesting way to get audiences to talk about your franchise, something that I think actually produces some interesting takes.
- Rogue Connections (4:31): I also love cameos and a creative team that can connect a movie to others in the franchise. Here we learn how these and other elements were lovingly crafted, which in my opinion made this movie even better.
The motion menus on Disc 1 are also worth noting, as we’re taken through each hero and a sequence of sequences from the film. The second disc is more standard, but it’s nice to see Disney spend the money on a nice menu.
Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo with a Digital HD copy code. The slipcase is colorful and highly detailed, with an embossed title. There’s no interior artwork here, but the digital code is presented in an interesting way. At the time of this posting, there were several different versions of the film offered, including a Best Buy steelbook with awesome interior shots, a Target multi-disc collection with swappable slipcases, and an offering from Walmart. Speaking as someone who triple-dipped for this release, I can tell you the Best Buy and Target versions are terrific, but you can’t go wrong with the standard release which makes up our review.
I hesitate to award high marks to a film that doesn’t add a director’s commentary, as I believe it’s essential to understanding the director’s original vision for their film. Considering the re-shoots that occurred here, a commentary track is all the more needed. The lack of one tells us that one is either forthcoming in the ubiquitous holiday version (ala THE FORCE AWAKENS) or that the subject is so divisive within the studio that any suggestion of another version might create too many kill zones for the final product. Either way, I hope we eventually get the chance to compare versions, not because it might be better than this one but because it adds closure to the process. Even though there’s a ton of supplements here to view, none of them mention the original version, which is why I scored this section lower.
THE BOTTOM LINE
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY pulls at our childhood love for droids, evil masters, beautiful princesses, and planet killers by taking us deeper and wider into this universe than we’ve ever seen. It encourages us to give a damn about something, to fight for that thing which we hold dear, and to be prepared for the sacrifices that inevitably come with the job. ROGUE ONE is a fantastic entry in the franchise, and one that should be cranked up no matter what A/V you have available. Even after multiple viewings, we don’t see it entering the Holy Trinity territory, but its message of hope against all odds serves as proof that a non-Skywalker based story can work so very well when the right people take it under its wing. Technical details are outstanding, but the lack of a commentary track makes closing this chapter difficult as an alternate version of the film still exists on the drives at Disney. We know this part of the story is done, but with promises of an ever-expanding universe, my faith that this franchise has turned back to its core greatness fills me with nothing but joy. It’s about damn time.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action and has a runtime of 134 minutes.