'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story': Film Review

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Felicity Jones - Photofest-H 2017
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest
Action-packed and engaging.

The first 'Star Wars' stand-alone movie, directed by Gareth Edwards and starring Felicity Jones, takes place before the events of the original 1977 'Star Wars.'

Rogue One definitely puts the war back into Star Wars. It may call itself rogue, but this first stand-alone feature in the series officially unconnected with any of the previous entries fits comfortably in the universe George Lucas birthed 40 years ago. Loaded with more battle action than any of its seven predecessors, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story plays like a setup for the events in the 1977 original and, for the most part, does so quite entertainingly.

Since anticipation for its arrival can't possibly match the pent-up public excitement that surrounded the franchise's rebirth with Star Wars: The Force Awakens a year ago, box-office returns probably won't equal that film's staggering $2 billion worldwide haul, but everyone at Disney command central will still be all smiles for a good while after Friday's opening.

Ingratiatingly rough and rugged and decked out with a rainbow coalition of actors from all over the world, in addition to a new 7-foot droid who steals every scene it's in, the yarn is set at a time when the fearsome Death Star is in the final stages of preparation before its massively lethal powers can be unleashed on the opposition. Led by a young woman whose brilliant father was coerced into designing the enormous home base for the evil Empire, the gang of interplanetary misfits here will be compared to any number of Earth-bound cinematic predecessors — the Wild Bunch, the Dirty Dozen, the Magnificent Seven, etc. — even if some of its members don't quite emanate the charisma of their cinematic forebears.

But director Gareth Edwards, whose low-budget debut feature Monsters was more than a few leagues better than his mixed-bag Godzilla redo, knows what he's up to here. Shooting in a more spontaneous-feeling manner than his series predecessors that keeps the energy high and both the actors and the audience on their toes, the director builds up to a gigantic third-act showdown that plays like a sci-fi version of the Battle of Iwo Jima, complete with a tropical island.

As in The Force Awakens, Rogue One screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy center on a female warrior driven by destiny to take on the mightiest power in the galaxy. Played by Felicity Jones, who physically could easily pass for the older sister of Force star Daisy Ridley, Jyn Erso has grown up under the cloud of her brilliant scientist father's reputation as a traitor for having gone over to the Dark Side when, in fact, he was captured and coerced into designing the Death Star.

It's not giving away too much to say that the whole plot hinges on Jyn's knowledge that her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), has secretly supplied the mammoth man-made war factory with an Achilles heel, a fatal flaw leaving it vulnerable to destruction by someone with the right key. This job naturally falls to his resourceful daughter, who, in the film's initial stretch, zooms around to a dizzying array of different planets, where she scoops up misfit warriors to join her long-shot enterprise.

These far-flung lands provide a nice workout for the production and costume designers, who have labored extensively to give them all distinctive looks. One is an imperial labor camp, another a sort-of Middle Eastern-style commercial fleshpot, some more thoroughly policed by Stormtroopers than others. With Jyn from the outset is the droid K-2SO, who's a more useful, resourceful and sarcastic version of C-3PO. Beautifully designed and voiced with droll wit and exquisite timing by Alan Tudyk, he's the most useful of Jyn's cohorts, as well as the most entertaining.

Also engaging, even if the character's conception is limited and not exactly fresh, is Hong Kong Ip Man star Donnie Yen's blind swordsman, who is amusingly able to avoid harm's way while doing expert damage to enemies by virtue of his other heightened senses. Supplying more muscle is mainland Chinese actor Jiang Wen as a lone warrior, and filling out the team are Diego Luna as a rebel spy and Riz Ahmed playing a pilot who's defected to the Alliance. A hirsute Forest Whitaker turns up briefly as a lone wolf outlaw who raised Jyn in her father's absence.

What the film really lacks is a strong and vigorous male lead (such as Han Solo or John Boyega's Finn in The Force Awakens) to balance more equally with Jyn and supply a sparring partner. None of the men here has real physical or vocal stature, nor any scenes in which they can decisively emerge from the pack in a way that engages audience enthusiasm. Both Luna and Ahmed have proved themselves repeatedly in big-screen and television performances, but their characters never pop here, to the film's detriment. And given that Jyn is rather less gung-ho and imposing than was Ridley's Rey, there's an overall feel of less physical capacity on the part of the main characters.

Contrasting with this is a picture of a Galactic Empire on the verge of universal dominance. Work on the Death Star may be behind schedule, but its foot soldiers already occupy many far-flung outposts, the fleet of fighter spacecraft is imposing and its power to unleash devastation is unmatched — as seen in a breath-stopping sequence in which an entire society is wiped out in a bigger-than-Hiroshma blast. Running the imperial offense is the creepy Death Star overseer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), whose resemblance to Scientology chief David Miscavige is uncanny.

But even creepier — jaw-droppingly so — is the resurrection of the late and singular British actor Peter Cushing, who played the role of Grand Moff Tarkin, the Imperial leader first seen in Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. Cushing, who died in 1994 at age 81, pops up here, with matter-of-fact naturalness and complete credibility, playing the same character he did before with fresh dialogue. It's the art (and deceit) of CGI taken to new and perfected lengths, and it has to be said that this actor, dead now for more than 20 years, gives a better performance than some other actors in the cast.

What Moff Tarkin's presence here ensures is that we will see Darth Vader, once again voiced by James Earl Jones (now 85), albeit with plenty of electronic modulation. Vader doesn't do much, but his mere presence manifestly juices the proceedings.

The climactic battle, fought on a tropical isle that can't help but summon thoughts of the Pacific during World War II, goes on and on and on some more, during which time Jyn frantically tries to find a way to root out the booby trap her father installed in the Death Star's system design. A final bit of wondrous CGI provides a bridge that leads quite plausibly to the original Star Wars.

So this new entry in the series, stand-alone or not, earns solid middle-to-upper-middle standing in the overall franchise scheme of things. Whether we ever see any of these new characters again remains an open question; some would be welcome, others will not be missed. What fans will get here is loads of action, great effects, good comic relief, stunning locations (Iceland, Jordan and the Maldives) and some intriguing early glimpses of the Galactic Empire as it begins to flex its intergalactic power.

This is the first Star Wars feature not to be graced by an original John Williams score. His successor, the estimable Michael Giacchino, aptly weaves some of his predecessor's famous themes into his own work, with solid results.

Up next Christmas: the otherwise untitled Star Wars: Episode VIII.

Distributor: Disney
Production company: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jimmy Smits, James Earl Jones, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenwriters: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, story by John Knoll, Gary Whitta, based on characters created by George Lucas
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Executive producers: John Knoll, Jason D. McGatlin
Director of photography: Greig Fraser
Production designers: Doug Chiang, Neil Lamont
Costume designers: Glyn Dillon, David Crossman
Visual effects supervisors: John Knoll, Mohen Leo
Casting: Jina Jay

Rated PG-13, 133 minutes