Ever wonder how the Alliance got the plans that told them how to destroy the Death Star? Well, what once seemed like a convenient plot device has now been retconned into Episode 3.5, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story."
Felicity Jones stars as scrappy survivor Jyn Erso, whose father ("Doctor Strange"s Mads Mikkelsen) is an Empire weapons designer, but a Rebel at heart. When a message goes out that suggests he's built a purposeful flaw into the proposed planet-killing weapon, Jyn and a motley crew of rebels and rogues set off to steal the plans before a power-hungry Imperial military leader (Ben Mendelsohn, all delicious sneers and space capes) can employ the Death Star.
The story fits snugly into the existing "Star Wars" franchise, and long time fans will thrill at the ways director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy lace "Rogue One" into "A New Hope" through costumes, set design, and recurring characters (some more smoothly employed than others). Weitz and Gilroy keep the story small, focusing on a single directive: recover Jyn's father to discover the Death Star weakness. One might wonder why Pappa Erso didn't just send that McGuffin file along with the messenger (an underused Riz Ahmed) sent to tell the rebels such a file exists. But hey, look! Robots and aliens and space battles! Oh, my!
"Rogue One" doesn't want you looking too closely at the plot, unloading its points in messy exposition dumps across Alliances roundtables, edged with steely commanders. Instead, you're entreated to enjoy the ride that rockets from one far flung planet and earnest hero to another, hastily setting up heroes we're meant to care for deeply, despite little character development. It helps that Edwards has a cast stacked with charisma, including the wide-eyed Ahmed as a defected Empire pilot, the sultry Diego Luna as Alliance tough guy Cassian Andor, Alan Tudyk voicing the snarky robot K-2SO, Wen Jiang as a gruff gunslinger, and iconic martial artist Donnie Yen as a blind samurai, who believes deeply in the Force. But a handful of lines apiece and occasional heroics is not enough to define these characters or deeply engage audience empathy. And while Jyn is a physically and mentally "strong female character," she's not a complex or compelling one. Oft stern and smirking, Jyn is a bit of a bore. And her turn from apathetic loner ("I've never had the luxury of political opinion!") to the Alliance's bravest rebel ("Rebellions are built on hope!") feels unearned, not exhilarating.
Still, I admire the darker tone Edwards strikes with the "Star Wars" series most conventional war movie. We're repeatedly embedded with characters in lethal battles, ranging from the streets of an Empire-occupied city to the heights of space, alight with gunfire and alive with zipping spaceships. The stakes are high, the tone grim, and the chances of survival are very low. Fans will likely thrill at the climax, which cuts between Jyn's ticking clock mission and a raging space conflict above. But Yen proves the movie's scene-stealer, delivering a jaw-dropping fight scene where he faces down a fleet of Stormtroopers single-handed with just a staff, and his blind faith (get it?) in the Force. Regrettably, bigger action scenes get muddled by Edwards' fractured geography. However, Yen's hand-to-blaster combat scene is so good I'd gladly see a "Star Wars" samurai spinoff with Jiang as his cynical foil.
Perhaps unsurprising, the other standout of "Rogue One" is Tudyk's battle bot. An Empire droid reprogrammed for the Alliance, K-2SO's glitch is that he can't keep himself from saying his every barbed thought out loud. While Yen and Jiang score some laughs as an unexpected but dynamic duo, it's the abrasive K-2 that brings shrewd spikes of levity and had audiences howling whether he's insulting Jyn or interrupting a maudlin moment with a snide correction.
All in all, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is a serviceable movie that will provide die-hard fans with enough to celebrate. Still, it could have been so much more. Frankly, Disney has raised the bar of expectation too high on this franchise to get a pass for a sweet but sloppy adventure like this
If only the two-hour plus runtime made time to dig into its heroes like the original trilogy or "The Force Awakens" did, "Rogue One" could have been as sensational and satisfying. Instead, the focus is on iconography and continuity, sacrificing the other key element of the "Star Wars" franchise: characters we cling to! As it stands, the film seems to take for granted that audiences will bond to these thinly sketched rebels on pre-existing love of the franchise alone. And frankly, I expect better from a movie that's demanding we follow an entirely new batch of characters. As it is, the fun feels hollow, and leaves me less in awe and more with questions about glaring plot holes and frustration of being underwhelmed by one of my most anticipated releases of the year.
"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" opens December 16th.