There's something jarring about the harsh orchestral blast that opens Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The comfortingly familiar pageantry of watching an opening crawl of plot details underscored by John Williams' regal theme has been stolen from us, and the early scenes of the film move with such alarming speed – darting from one planet to another with near-absurd efficiency - that we have no time to catch our bearings. On the whole, this is a good thing: after the sentimental (and undeniably effective) nostalgia trip that was The Force Awakens, it's encouraging to see a Star Wars movie that seems to feel no need to convince its viewers that they're watching a Big Event.
This is a Star Wars film by way of an Alistair MacLean novel; a rousing yet morally complicated war movie located in a familiar sci-fi setting. It largely avoids the gee-whiz Flash Gordon elements of the original trilogy while fully embracing the Akira Kurosawa epics that George Lucas drew inspiration from, turning in a movie that feels tougher than anything else in the series. While the Star Wars movies have always contained a number of interesting real-world parallels, this film's harsher tone and documentary-esque visual style causes those parallels to hit you more directly. Startlingly, there were moments that had me briefly flashing back to the heart-wrenching footage from Aleppo I had been watching just a couple of days earlier.
Rogue One is a prelude of sorts to the events of A New Hope, though it features few of that film's characters. The story centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything), a young warrior with a tragic past. When she was a child, her father – the esteemed research scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal) – was captured by the Empire. She then spent her teenage years fighting alongside the controversial Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland), whose extremism has put him at odds with the Rebel Alliance. However, she parted ways with Saw at the age of 16, and has been something of a free agent ever since.
After news arrives that Galen has been forced to help the Empire design an extraordinarily powerful new superweapon (you know the one), the Rebellion tasks Jyn with freeing her father from the Empire's clutches and bringing him in to testify. After securing the assistance of Saw, Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, Milk), former Imperial pilot Bohdi Rook (Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler), blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen, Ip Man), Rebel mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen, New York, I Love You) and reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, Serenity), Jyn begins her dangerous mission.
In a wide variety of ways, it's more complicated than it sounds. Some of her allies secretly harbor different mission objectives, new wrinkles arrive that change the nature of the mission in challenging ways and things never seem to go according to plan. Additionally, these rebels tend to get their hands dirtier than the daring heroes of A New Hope, and one of the film's most interesting elements is the way it recognizes the blurred line between terrorism and heroism. The Empire still bears a strong resemblance to Nazi Germany, but I don't recall earlier portrayals of the Rebellion inspiring quite so many thoughts of Che Guevara.
Under the guidance of director Gareth Edwards (and maybe others, depending on which behind-the-scenes reports you believe), Rogue One moves at relentless pace that contrasts sharply with A New Hope (the film this one is most directly connected to). The pace matches the film's tone nicely: the world is falling apart, and everyone had better move quickly if they want to save some of it. The action sequences are frantic and intense (the third-act climax is particularly impressive, managing to deliver both edge-of-year-seat intensity and real emotional weight), but even the many scenes of preparation and planning (which add to the sense that we're watching a wild fantasy version of Where Eagles Dare) have a striking sense of urgency. Michael Giacchino's score matches this, breathlessly charging through pieces that frequently echo John Williams but only occasionally quote him. Those quotes have a sense of urgency, too: they often seem to end a little earlier than we expect them to, as if the film only has time for so much fan service (there's a lot of it, but the movie largely doesn't underline it to the degree The Force Awakens did).
The impressively diverse ensemble does solid work, with Jones' fine, flinty lead performance serving as a sturdy centerpiece. The standout of the bunch is probably Tudyk's K-2SO, whose analytical nature and withering sarcasm make him feels like the perfect halfway point between C-3PO and Marvin the Paranoid Android. Almost every player of note has at least one scene that allows them to bring something special to the table, and elsewhere they strike their chords effectively: Ben Mendelsohn (playing the film's chief heavy) seethes and smirks, Luna serves up relaxed confidence, Mikkelsen offers mournful pragmatism, Whitaker goes for emotionally volatile bombast, Yen delivers smiling serenity, etc. It's also a spine-tingling pleasure to hear the voice of James Earl Jones (Field of Dreams) as Darth Vader once again, though the film (wisely) uses the iconic character very sparingly.
The film makes so many smart, thoughtful decisions that it's a little surprising to see it throw a spectacularly terrible one into the mix. (There's a minor spoiler ahead, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you haven't seen the movie.) Given that the film is taking place just before the events of A New Hope, it's no surprise that the filmmakers felt the need to include Grand Moff Tarkin in a few scenes. However, I'm more than a little baffled by their decision to digitally recreate Peter Cushing's likeness in order to do this. The CG Cushing-beast is a remarkably unconvincing bit of digital trickery, and every time the character appeared I couldn't stop thinking about how weird he looked. Why not just cast a look-alike? A similar mistake is made on one of the film's key shots, detracting from what ought to be a moving moment.
That misstep aside, this a fine addition to the Star Wars saga that successfully manages to do its own thing while remaining true to the universe it belongs to. Despite the fact that it's part of a mega-franchise, this is the rare blockbuster that feels free of the usual franchise film limitations. There are no (direct) sequels to set up, no cliffs to hang from, no bets to be hedged. This movie is giving you everything it's got, and it's remarkable what a difference that makes.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Year: 2016