"I'm one with the Force. The Force is with me."
The revitalization of the Star Wars franchise continues with the awkwardly titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first anthology, non-"Episode" standalone entry into the Lucasfilm saga. The prequel, directed by Gareth Edwards, takes place directly before Episode VI - A New Hope and focuses on the retrieval of the Death Star plans mentioned in the opening crawl. Rogue One is a film undeniably about the act of war and rebellion as it makes the case for fighting back.
From a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, the latter of whom rewrote the original script extensively during production while also supervising reshoots and the editing process, the prequel is a love letter to the original trilogy but lacks focus on its underdeveloped characters and conflicts. Unlike Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Rogue One never feels overly formulaic or predictable. It takes a few narrative risks and has little need to set up other films—aside from A New Hope, of course. However, the new characters are nowhere near as compelling despite a more straightforward plot and sense of momentum.
The space epic features a sprawling and diverse cast but struggles to make time and balance their stories as well as previous films. Felicity Jones, doing her best, anchors the film as a freedom fighter, Jyn Erso, in search of her kidnapped scientist father Galen, a very stoic Mads Mikkelsen, and the Death Star plans. Alongside her is a miscast Diego Luna who does his best roguish Han Solo interpretation as Captain Cassian Andor. His co-lead status is mostly a result of needing to relate characters—many of whom come and go—and plot points together.
The main villain is Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial Director Orson Krennic tasked with overseeing the space weapon and hunting the Rebellion forces. Mendelsohn is suitably menacing but his motivations as an ambitious bureaucrat are undercooked. The talented Riz Ahmed is underused in a key role as an Imperial cargo pilot who defects to the Rebellion. A spry Donnie Yen is sensational as a blind warrior whose deep faith in the Force guides him while aiding the men on a mission. Alan Tudyk voices K-2SO, a reprogrammed droid, as the film's liveliest presence full of welcome comic one-liners. It's telling the robot is by far the most dynamic character in the film with the most defined personality.
Edwards' low-key use of Darth Vader, once again voiced by James Earl Jones, as a threat of violence and evil is exhilarating and pays off incredibly. While it's strange there's no opening crawl, John Williams fanfare, Jedi, Skywalkers, or lightsaber battles, the expanded universe ultimately proves refreshing and fascinating. Despite the word appearing in the franchise's title, "war" has never been a core focus in Star Wars until now as Rogue One emphasizes people on the ground rising up against oppression.
The film rushes to pack in its exposition introducing its main characters then racing around different planets to establish the urgent nature of galactic war. Once things get going, the film takes off culminating in some beautifully filmed action by cinematographer Greig Fraser with a fantastic finale. The first half slogs and some of the story mechanics are repetitive and unnecessary, including exposition about a freedom fighter who raised Jyn played by Forrest Whittaker that's never paid off, before shifting into an all-out action spectacular set of sequences cutting back and forth.
Rogue One is an exercise in rebuking the prequel trilogy while further mythologizing and retconning the original. It balances space and war deftly with a magical sense of adventure and momentum once it gets going yet suffers from introducing and revisiting so many old elements while struggling to build memorable characters or personalities. Edwards and Gilroy admirably create a mostly self-contained and satisfying side story to the Star Wars universe in thrilling fashion. Most importantly, it takes risks and pushes the world outside of its normal boundaries.
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