The spinoff provides a solid prequel to the George Lucas original. It takes us to a galaxy of new planets shrouded by ice or cloud-capped fog, drenched in rain or adorned by towering palm trees, all property of the evil Empire. At the center is criminal-turned-rebel Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and the squad of soldiers-at-arms allied with her.
Their goal is to capture the digital blueprints for the newly constructed Imperial Death Star, designed by her father (Mads Mikkelsen). Or perhaps to assassinate him for aiding the totalitarians. The film builds tension, starting from scratch with original new characters who don't necessarily deserve our trust. We're barely introduced to Jyn's dissident cohort Cassian (Diego Luna) before he blasts another man, an attack that is more provocative than when Han Solo shot Greedo in cold blood at the Mos Eisley cantina.
The story is the brainchild of a five-member writing team with Tony Gilroy, who scripted most of the punishing Jason Bourne films, listed near the top. His bloody-knuckles vibe is clearly on display. As in every “Star Wars” film, the focus is the little guy fighting the big guy no matter what the odds. This time, the combat leaves palpable scars coated in filth; you experience them and wince. Not many Disney-produced films feature a frightened, screaming child watching her city being blasted apart.
As the latest in an ongoing (and seemingly endless) string of “Star Wars” companion films, this is a surprising shift. Right from the beginning, it warns us not to assume that we know what's coming. The opening parallels the hulking behemoth star cruiser descending across the screen in the beginning of “Star Wars.” It takes a few seconds for our eyes to realize they're being deceived by a cunningly designed visual red herring.
Leave your expectations at the door. This time, there is no story summary rolling up the screen. While it revives images, tropes, several classic characters and opaque mysticism about the Force, it's immediately apparent that “Rogue One” isn't weighed down by fan-service nostalgia. With little time for comic relief or patience for chatty character building, it amps up the tension from the start, and delivers it throughout in violent, even terrifying style.
The conflict in other “Star Wars” stories wasn't focused on the genuine courage needed to battle a huge, vicious enemy but in terms of swashbuckling David-and-Goliath combat. This installment offers less derring-do and more steely, unyielding bravery. Like life on planet Earth, science fiction has evolved since the 1970s. The space opera's simplistic black-and-white morality is tempered now with nebulous gray patches.
Of course, authoritarians are still entirely evil. Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn is the gold standard of personified malice as the main villain, Krennic, the official overseeing the debut of the long-gestating Death Star. He's chillingly disagreeable whether he's ordering his troops to massacre innocents or clashing with Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin (represented here by a stunningly good computer resurrection of the late horror icon Peter Cushing).
The cast is uniformly valuable, with Jones turning her tomboy spunk into full-blown heroism. She mourns here and there but never frets. Luna has the screen charisma needed for his radical commando, and Alan Tudyk adds a note of scornful sarcasm as his droid K-2SO. Donnie Yen, as a sightless spiritual warrior, is clearly the cast member getting the most joy out of his balletic fights with Stormtroopers, scything them with his staff like a chess player cleaning the board with a sweep of his arm.
While the production has been plagued by accounts of extensive reshoots, the finished film feels solid and tight as a drum. Director Gareth Edwards demonstrated a knack for military science fiction excitement in his giant aliens fantasy "Monsters" and rebooted “Godzilla.”
He gives this chapter a new sense of urgency, creating a drama that feels closer to a gritty war movie than its predecessors, in spirit and in execution. "Rogue One" hurls everything at the audience: super guns, bazookas, hand grenades and death beams that vaporize huge cityscapes in seismic blasts resembling nuclear bomb blasts. His gift for visual storytelling is sharp enough that when a good, old light saber returns near the finale, it's the lethal piece de resistance. The Force is strong with this one.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
3.5 out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action.
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