A cynic might see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a spin-off/prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy, as just exercise in brand extension (i.e., cash grab), Disney’s latest effort to exploit or capitalize on the vast, worldwide popularity of the Star Wars franchise they purchased from George Lucas. A non-cynic eager to revisit the myth-drenched Star Wars universe on film again, especially after the unmitigated box-office success of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens just last year, will find much to like, maybe even love, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As carefully, deliberated crafted as Star Wars: The Force Awakens (both as well-made commercial product and resonant commercial art), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story delivers practically everything Star Wars fans have come to expect from the long-running franchise, the heroism, likely and not, the archetypical characters thrust into seemingly impossible, galaxy-saving missions, against seemingly superior foes (David vs. Goliath on a galactic scale), and the pleasures found in relatively simple, archetypical stories pitting good vs. evil.
***MILD SPOILERS BELOW***
When we first meet the grown-up Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), she’s more Han Solo (outsider/lawbreaker) than Luke Skywalker (hero-in-training). She’s half-asleep, half-dreaming, half-remembering her brief childhood, a childhood ended by the unwanted, if not unexpected, arrival of Imperial troops led by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a high-level officer in charge of the Empire’s advanced weapons program with a fetish for capes. Krennic wants Jyn’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), to return to the Empire’s service and refuses to take no for an answer. Jyn manages to escape’s Krennic’s men with the help of her father’s onetime friend, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), but the experience effectively defines her over the next fifteen years. She becomes a rebel without a cause until Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Captain in the Rebel Alliance, rescues her from an Imperial transport vehicle.
Jyn isn’t important in and of herself – a key problem that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story fails to adequately resolve – but only through her relationship with her absent father. The Rebel Alliance wants Jyn to help her find Saw Gerrera, who in turn, holds a ex-imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), hostage, and also in turn, find her father and whatever information Galen might have about the Empire’s newest, most deadly weapon, the planet-killing Death Star. From there, it’s only a matter of time before Jyn and Andor’s makeshift team expands to include Rook, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind, force-sensitive monk, and his protector/friend, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), on an impossible mission to retrieve the Death Star plans and give the Rebel Alliance a fighting chance against the Galactic Empire.
There’s no mystery as to where and when Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ends, mere seconds before Star Wars: A New Hope begins (a not unfamiliar character steps in briefly to underline the “hope” part), but the who and the how. With the outcome predetermined, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story invariably loses some of the cathartic kick that the better entries in the Star Wars series (e.g., A New Hope, Empire, The Force Awakens) offer in their last, indelible moments, but it’s also far from a surprise, given that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a prequel/spin-off. Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters) and his screenwriting team, Chris Weitz (Cinderella, The Golden Compass, About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy from a story credited to Gary Whitta (After Earth, The Boo of Eli) and visual effects innovator John Knoll, have roughly two hours to make us care about Jyn, Cassian, and the others on more than a superficial level. They don’t, in large part because Rogue One: A Star Wars Story repeatedly, consistently puts a premium on story over character. Jyn’s switch in allegiances – from herself to the Rebel Alliance – happens because the script and series demand it, not because it happens organically.
In fact, there’s little, if any time for anything beyond broad, reductive character development – a good thing for some moviegoers who prefer non-attachment to one-off characters – a big miss for the first in a predicted series of standalone films. Jyn’s defined by her father issues, her father’s abandonment, made under duress and necessity, turns her into a hard, selfish young woman (a later abandonment serves a similar purpose). Until the final, rousing third act, she often takes a backseat to Andor and his heroics. At least initially, Andor appears to be a promising character, a Rebel Alliance officer who’s made questionable decisions for the Cause, but outside a “Will he or won’t he?” scene, he’s left to ferry Jyn and the others from one stunning location/planet to the other. But that’s still an improvement over Book, Îmwe, and Malbus, less characters than sketches for characters that the screenwriters forgot to fill in. Each one gets their obligatory “hero” moment, but they only make lasting impressions thanks to the canny casting of charismatic performers in Ahmed, Yen, and Jiang.
Whether just a business move recognizing the power of the international box office or made out of a pro-diversity, pro-inclusion stance by Disney executives, the filmmakers, or both, it’s a net positive. Likewise with casting Jones, fresh off an Oscar nod for A Theory of Everything and several well-regarded roles in a row, as Jyn. She helps to elevate thin, underwritten material, given Jyn hints of a turbulent inner life that a lesser actress would be hard pressed to show in an action- and incident-heavy film like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Luna plays the dashing, conflicted Andor with the requisite level of gravitas and seriousness, leaving the comedic asides to K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed imperial droid who always speaks his mind, no matter how inappropriate.
Points to Edwards (and possibly his uncredited co-director, Tony Gilroy), though, for keeping Rogue One: A Star Wars Story moving at an unrelenting, relentless pace. The periodic info dumps and morale-building speeches aside, Edwards really knows his way around spectacle. The set pieces range in size and complexity from relatively small scenes in the first section to the effects-heavy battle in the third act. That battle unfolds both on the ground in a WWII-inspired assault and in outer space over an imperial planet between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Edwards’ use of hand-held camerawork for the ground assault gives those scenes a level of intimacy and urgency generally missing from the Star Wars series (especially the CGI-ified prequel trilogy). Edwards deftly choreographs the action on the ground and in the air/outer space minus the usual chaos that tends to define modern blockbuster filmmaking. And despite its faults, including at least one egregious, unnecessary cameo (no, not Darth Vader), when the end comes (literally in some cases), it feels fully earned.