Let's not kid ourselves here. "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is about as superfluous a film as has ever been made, another prequel meant to capitalize off of the existing "Star Wars" fanbase's nostalgia for the original trilogy. And in this case, with the events of "Rogue One" leading directly into the events of 1977's "A New Hope," the new film has familiar locations, spaceships, and characters around every corner. I doubt there are five minutes that go by without a reference to something else familiar from the "Star Wars" canon. After last year's disappointingly familiar "The Force Awakens," it seemed like folly to expect anything truly original from "Rogue One."
And yet, Gareth Edwards and his crew do manage to make "Rogue One" a different kind of "Star Wars" movie. It's absolutely drenched in fanservice from beginning to end, and doesn't work too well on its own, but it stands out from the prior seven films in the series by being the first that really puts the "War" in "Star Wars." We get to see a much less romanticized view of the Rebellion, where our heroes, like Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), do terrible things in the name of their cause. Following in the tradition of older WWII films, we watch a small, ragtag group of desperate rebels go up against overwhelming odds with very high stakes, and the Empire is absolutely ruthless in this film. This is easily the darkest "Star Wars" film, to the point where I'd caution parents of smaller children to be wary.
The plot revolves around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a small time criminal who is the estranged daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), an Imperial scientist working on the Death Star. When an Imperial pilot, Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), defects with a message from Galen, the Rebellion recruits Jyn to help track down her father, which eventually leads to the famous mission to retrieve the plans for the Death Star. She and Cassian are joined by a cynical droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and have run ins with a cyborg freedom fighter, Saw Guerrera (Forrest Whitaker), a blind warrior monk, Chirrut (Donnie Yen), and a heavily armed mercenary, Baze (Jiang Wen). The main antagonist is Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a power-hungry Imperial officer working on the Death Star. None of these characters are very well fleshed out, but the cast is excellent, and the film is designed in such a way that they get plenty of support from slick action spectacle and well-orchestrated melodrama.
The first two thirds of "Rogue One" has some ups and downs, but everything clicks in the final act, which is a massive battle sequence on a a picturesque tropical planet called Scarif. And it's my favorite piece of "Star Wars" action since the original trilogy due to the sheer sense of scale and the excellent execution. Aside from a few instances of dead actors being resurrected with odd CGI doppelgangers, the visuals are great. All the old bits of "Star Wars" art design have been lovingly recreated, and appear suitably grungy and '70s era appropriate. The world feels much more tactile and immediate here than any of the other "Star Wars" films in decades, thanks to a lot of practical effects and on location shooting. The characters are also appealingly ordinary, mostly soldiers and misfits, played by a very diverse cast. The Jedi barely seem to exist in this universe.
Instead, the standouts are K-2SO, who is a constant source of gallows humor, Krennic, who benefits hugely from Ben Mendelsohn at his most craven, and Chirrut, who is exactly as cool as you'd imagine a Donnie Yen character in the "Star Wars" universe would be. The rest are fairly generic, which is a shame, but not too much of a black mark in this kind of film. Ultimately, I have absolutely no complaints about any of the performances, except to note that I suspect there were some rewrites of Saw Guerrera's role, because his part in the story is clearly truncated and doesn't really add up. Also, there was really far too little of Mads Mikkelson, but at least he was better used here than in "Doctor Strange."
It's the "Star Wars" universe that is the biggest winner here, more fleshed out and grounded than it has ever been. It's the Rebellion and the Empire that get the most characterization, oddly enough, through their clashes with each other. We see the lengths that the Empire is willing to go to in order to secure a victory, and the massive sacrifices necessary for the Rebellion to operate. There's a real weight to the stakes this time out, and "Rogue One" is one of the rare prequels that actually does a good job of setting up its predecessor - in this case the original "Star Wars."
There's a lot more I want to talk about, but I'll continue in a spoiler post. The long and the short of it is, "Rogue One" is a typical action blockbuster, but a refreshingly atypical "Star Wars" film, and I really appreciated it for that.