Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
When Gareth Edwards (Monsters, 2014’s Godzilla) was announced as the director of Star Wars prequel/spin-off Rogue One, he promised that he would deliver something along the lines of a war movie, a grittier, more serious look at the ground-level fighters in the Rebel Alliance against the evil Galactic Empire. Later, rumors surfaced that the movie’s reshoots focused on lightening the tone and bringing it more in line with the rollicking adventure style of the main Star Wars movies. It’s impossible for audiences to know which aspects of the finished product came from which sources, but there’s a definite tension to Rogue One between the fan-pleasing instincts of last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the tougher, grimmer material that Edwards initially promised.
Ultimately, as its subtitle declares, Rogue One is a Star Wars story, so it climaxes with a giant space battle, it features funny-looking aliens and wisecracking droids and the Force, and it focuses on good triumphing over evil, even if sacrifices must be made along the way. Set just before the events of 1977’s Star Wars (aka Episode IV: A New Hope), Rogue One stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a familiar Star Wars type (an orphan who begins the movie in dire circumstances) recruited by the Rebel Alliance for her connection to her long-lost father Galen (Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist for the Empire.
Teamed with the gruff, battle-hardened rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jyn eventually leads a team into Imperial territory to steal the plans for a terrifying new weapon known as the Death Star. Any Star Wars fan knows what those plans are for, but the eventual rousing victory is only a far-off notion to the movie’s characters, who don’t have noble heritage or a high midi-chlorian count. Jyn in particular is a reluctant recruit, and Jones gives her an admirable independent streak. Her character arc is the most satisfying aspect of the story, which gets bogged down in confusing incremental objectives during its final act.
The supporting characters are also appealing, particularly the surly reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO (played via motion capture by Alan Tudyk) and the blind Force-believing warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), sort of the Star Wars answer to Marvel’s Daredevil. It’s a bit disappointing, then, that the movie puts so much stock in cameos from recognizable Star Wars characters, which range from narratively useful to distractingly cheesy and gratuitous. Still, the elements often come together in delightfully entertaining ways, and even though the outcome is predetermined on a macro level (a problem Rogue One shares with creator George Lucas’ divisive prequel trilogy), the individual character dynamics are exciting and often unexpected. If The Force Awakens was an exercise in giving Star Wars fans exactly what they want, Rogue One does its best to show them what else there is in the galaxy.