Disney promised a Star Wars movie every year when it purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, and so far the company is staying right on schedule. Following Episode VII of the Skywalker saga last year, The Force Awakens, this year’s offering is Rogue One, the first of the much-discussed standalone films that will operate alongside the main storyline (although whether that goes past Episode IX is a matter of some speculation). In any case, Star Wars: Rogue One is a prequel – not necessarily a well-liked word around certain quarters of Star Wars fandom – and a story that rather boldly introduces a cast of almost entirely new faces, telling a tale that we’ve heard mentioned in a few lines of dialogue in the original Star Wars/A New Hope.
And it’s largely a success, a solid, enjoyable film that takes some risks with the Star Wars universe while also remaining, to an extent, on familiar ground. If it’s not a great movie – perhaps not even a great Star Wars movie, but a very good one – it’s because it still relies to some degree on fan service and because it lets down its characters in a fundamental way. But it’s also a fascinating look at this enormously popular and detailed universe from a slightly different angle, its humor is tinged with bitterness and cynicism, and it’s also – as promised by director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) – a war film, even if some of the themes associated with that don’t get anything more than a passing look. Plus it builds to one of the best third acts in the entire franchise, a 40-minute rollercoaster that twists from sheer excitement to grief to victory to hope.
Rogue One opens with Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) captured by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), director of Advanced Weaponry for the Empire. Erso was working on a powerful superweapon for the Empire when his conscience led him to quit and go into hiding with his family. But Krennic has tracked him down because the project is stalled and needs Erso’s skills to get it moving again, so he is whisked away – leaving his small daughter Jyn behind. 15 years later, we find the tough-as-nails Jyn (Felicity Jones) on an Imperial prison planet, from which she is sprung and taken to the headquarters of the Rebel Alliance. There she is tasked with locating her father and finding out the nature and status of the superweapon, known as the Death Star.
A team is assembled to not just to find Galen but eventually obtain the plans to the Death Star and study them to find a weakness. As the characters hurtle through the various plot points that have them bouncing across the galaxy (and stopping at a few places well-known to Star Wars geeks), we come to know very little about the crew that pulls together for the mission, led by a rather ruthless Rebel intelligence officer named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Even Jyn, played with gusto by Jones, is remarkably one-dimensional: the absence of her father is her dominant character trait, and beyond that she’s kind of a cipher like the rest of the team. The exception is K-250, a war-weary Imperial-droid-turned-rebel who is the most interesting “person” in the movie, at least partially because he’s voiced by the great Alan Tudyk.
Yes, Rogue One is a war movie: an early and quite violent confrontation in an outdoor market where even the innocent bystanders get hurt, is perhaps deliberately meant to cast even the vaunted Rebel Alliance in shades of gray. Yet leaving that idea mostly unexplored and the characters largely thin on the ground doesn’t have the adverse effect it could potentially have, because the rest of the movie is so darn entertaining. Rogue One shows you brief glimpses of sights that you’ve never seen before in a Star Wars movie, and the effect of that – along with the emergence of a couple of familiar faces from the past – is to make fans a little giddy.
Then there’s the movie’s last act, which takes the movie’s pros and cons up to that point, rolls them up in a little ball, and fires them out into space. The mission to steal the Death Star plans is a tour de force of action, suspense, fighting, daring escapes, and lots of explosions and blasters that amps up the movie’s already fast pacing to another level and keeps coming at you with one seat-clutching scenario after another. If some of the earlier scenes in Rogue One have that gritty, almost documentary feel to them, Edwards alters the approach ever so slightly here and the result is a mix of the movie’s earlier ruggedness with a wider, more (space) operatic feel. The whole thing is epic, even majestic, and brings the movie to a rousing and spectacular finish that is literally down to the wire.
If only I had a bit more emotional investment in what was happening, if I cared a little bit more for Donnie Yen’s monk-like, Force-praying martial art fighter or Riz Ahmed’s twitchy former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, then the culmination of all this action and pyrotechnics would be that much more powerful. Both men are terrific, as is the rest of the cast, but they are only given one note to play, and the fact that they play the hell out of it keeps the viewer in the movie all the way through, along with the dazzling visuals, Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score (which syncs up marvelously with the John Williams themes ported over from the main saga), the little surprises along the way, and the persistent buzz of watching a movie that is recognizably Star Wars, but also a little different.
Star Wars: Rogue One is out in theaters on Friday, December 16.