“Rogue One” is a tragic, dark and grimy space adventure that puts the “war” in “Star Wars.”
This prequel is solid and eminently watchable, but much like last year’s “The Force Awakens,” the film often feels like really expensive fan fiction.
But if kids and families aren’t turned off by its bleakness, “Rogue One” is going to sell more toys than you could stuff in a fleet of Jawa sandcrawlers.
Disney’s latest chapter in what it’s now calling the “Star Wars Story” focuses on events immediately prior to the very first “Star Wars” film from 1977, now known throughout the galaxy as “Episode IV: A New Hope.”
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Brace yourself for a galaxy of new characters, because the absolute best attribute of “Rogue One” is its diverse cast.
Felicity Jones (“Inferno,” “The Theory of Everything”) plays Jyn Erso, the defiant, criminal daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson of “Doctor Strange”), a reluctant engineering mastermind who designed the Death Star’s planet-destroying mega laser.
The Rebel Alliance wants Jyn to help its man Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (a hilarious Alan Tudyk in motion capture) find her father and steal the plans for the Death Star.
Along the way they pick up a magnificently dirty half-dozen or so warriors to help them in their quest, including the AWOL Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); the heavily armed Chewbacca stand-in, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen); and the blind, Force-adept Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen).
Thwarting their efforts is Imperial officer Orson Krennic, played by the excellent Ben Mendelsohn (Netflix’s “Bloodline”), who’s waging his own middle-managerial battle between Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin.
Yes, the two heavies from the first “Star Wars” show up, as do a handful of other characters from the original trilogy. This will be a great thrill for fans begging to see more of Dr. Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba.
The purpose behind “Rogue One” — beyond making money, you cynic — is to answer two questions: Who were the spies who stole the plans for the Death Star and why in the world was it so easily destroyed?
Which sparks many other questions, including, were we really all that interested in knowing the answers to those questions?
As he did with his acclaimed indie “Monsters,” director Gareth Edwards excels at showing the human costs of a long-running war. About midway through the film, Jyn and Cassian argue about the price each has paid. It’s clear their experiences in this epic conflict have amounted to more than just Jedis, Wookiees and droids.
But so much of the plot, especially in the final battle, plays out like a dramatic live-action adaptation of the “Star Wars Battlefront” video games. There’s a ridiculous sequence of events required to transmit the blueprint files to the Rebel Fleet — race to the master switch, adjust the antenna, turn the transmission beacon on. It’s like a complicated series of button-mashing on a PlayStation controller.
The supporting characters are too thinly drawn for a video game, though, and some are even laughable. Forest Whitaker’s wheezy rebel Saw Gerrera may be intended as a cross between Darth Vader and General Grievous, but he’s more like a community theater Captain Ahab with a touch of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth from “Blue Velvet.”
With the exception of some character animations, the production design, special effects work, sound and editing of “Rogue One” are nearly flawless.
Jones and Luna are great. Their emotional arcs make their against-all-odds mission carry as much weight as anything in the original trilogy.
And even though the film is much grungier and more realistic than all the previous chapters, this corner of the “Star Wars” universe still is a thrilling place to visit.
But just as the prequels weakened the original trilogy, “Rogue One” lessens the overall mythology by unnecessarily explaining events from previous films.
If the flaw in the Death Star exploited by Luke Skywalker in “A New Hope” was an intentional mistake, as explained in “Rogue One,” then his feat becomes a little less spectacular, in much the same way the evil of Darth Vader is diminished by hearing teen Anakin whine about the coarseness of sand.
The biggest problem with the “Star Wars” films is we’re eight episodes and nearly 40 years in and the story hasn’t progressed much beyond the “I am your father” moment in 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.”
When Disney bought the rights to the universe from George Lucas and announced plans to release a “Star Wars” film every year, mostly around Christmas, fans (including myself) were ecstatic. New characters! New toys! New stories!
But after these first two After Disney (A.D.) installments, the “Star Wars” universe is starting to feel more like an annual holiday trudge to Grandma’s house, where we hear slightly different versions of the same old stories year after year.
‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:13.