Producing a series of films where each is a sequel of the previous is tricky enough, but slipping new films into an older series so that they begin and end at logical points yet tell a story all their own is extraordinarily difficult. And that’s exactly what director Gareth Edwards does with the terrific new ‘Star Wars’ film ‘Rogue One.’ The third film in the ‘Star Wars’ saga, ‘Revenge of the Sith’ (2005) ends with two babies being split up to live in different houses, Luke and Leia. ‘Star Wars IV,’ the original ‘A New Hope’ (1977) begins with the two of them being in their late teens. More importantly, ‘Revenge of the Sith’ also ends with the Empire developing a planet killer, a super weapon called a Death Star. The same Death Star that features so prominently in ‘A New Hope.’
But you already know all of that. ‘Rogue One’ tells the intervening story of how an Imperial pilot betrays the Empire by revealing information about the Death Star and how Rebel fighters Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) enlist an unlikely group of compatriots to learn more about the weaknesses of the Death Star so they can defeat it. But there are a million and one obstacles in the way, not the least of which is that the Rebel Alliance has to find the Imperial pilot who knows of the Death Star and learn what they can from him.
Armed with a single ship and the wry, witty K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the two fly to a small trading planet Jedha to rescue Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). During a tangle with Stormtroopers in the marketplace, they are aided by the blind Jedi Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and his compatriot Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), two splendid additions to the party. Jyn’s father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was coerced years earlier into being the master designer of the Death Star, something that causes great tension among the crew: is Jyn trustworthy or a spy, the daughter of not just an Imperial sympathizer but the architect of the planet killer?
The story continues with the Rebels realizing that they need full blueprints and plans for the Death Star, and to get those, a brave crew will need to head to the Imperial stronghold of Scarif and somehow manage to take on a massive garrison, find the data on the Death Star, steal it, and send it back to the Rebel base. Assuming they can even figure out how to get past the planetary shield that protects it from invading forces and, of course, the hundreds of Stormtroopers throughout.
While I enjoyed ‘The Force Awakens’ as the first new movie in the ‘Star Wars’ canon for many years, there’s a lot about ‘Rogue One’ that’s far superior, making it great fun. Narratively and pacing-wise, it feels a lot like ‘A New Hope,’ which is delightful, even as it clearly has a more masterful approach to the visual language of modern cinema. The rhythm of battle and dialog works very well with just a few moments where the film lags, and while some of the battles were a bit overly long, fans will love the many nods to the earlier saga.
One interesting part is that this nod includes digitally added actors from earlier films, with Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing) appearing throughout ‘Rogue One,’ even though the great actor passed away in 1994. There’s another digital actor who appears at the very end, but that’s best left as a surprise. Just keep a close eye out as the film wraps up its narrative.
The biggest problem with ‘Rogue One’ isn’t the story or the visual effects, but the characters themselves. While Jones is perfectly adequate as tough female lead Jyn Erso and Diego Luna is engaging as Cassian Andor, there were no actors that really stood out as being memorable or quotable. Indeed, just as ‘The Force Awakens’ brought us BB-8 as the runaway (rollaway?) star, one of the best characters in ‘Rogue One’ is unquestionably the snarky, sarcastic K-2SO, who combines the best of C-3PO and a rebel fighter. He’s always a welcome addition to the scene.
The other interesting character was the blind Jedi Baze Malbus. An interesting character who reminded us of the mysticism surrounding The Force in the original films, his backstory was woefully missing from the film and even a few minutes of him sharing the journey that caused him to go blind and simultaneously find The Force and learn how to harness it as what seems like a self-taught Jedi would have been an excellent addition.
‘Rogue One’ also diverts from the other films in different ways, reminding us that it’s not part of the ‘Star Wars’ series but a different story that takes place in the same universe. There’s no opening crawl and the iconic John Williams series theme is noticably absent (though the new themes by Michael Giacchino work just fine).
I’ll be candid. I’ve always loved the ‘Star Wars’ universe, and even suffered through the inferior parts I, II and III simply because it’s such a fun saga with an obvious good guy versus bad guy storyline set across the galaxy. Spaceships! Weird aliens! Cool robots! What’s not to love? And in this sense, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ is a great addition to canon and is well worth seeing on the big screen. More than once, I suspect.