Leave us pass over in silence, for now, the more irksome plot devices in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. Instead, let us focus on what a fine action/adventure film it is. This prequel to EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE takes a line from that film and builds an impressive feature-length story about the Star Wars universe that is tangential, yet integral, to the one inhabited by Luke, Han, and Princess Leia. Once again, we return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the Death Star was still a secret weapon and the Rebel Alliance was on its last legs against the might of the Empire.
None of that matters to our heroine, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a scrappy petty criminal with a major childhood trauma fueling her rage. She also has trust issues, hence the reflexive way she attempts to flatten the Rebels rescuing her from prison. It’s not that she lacks the ability to do so. It’s just that the droid in the rescue party, K-2SO (voiced with palpable if prickly humanity by Alan Tudyk), deftly stops her with a well-timed arm and a well-honed sarcastic quip that instantly steals not just our hearts, but darn near the entire film.
Being sprung from prison is not an entirely altruistic action on the part of the Rebels. Jyn is the key to making contact with an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmad) who, rumor has it, has information vital to the rebellion. Politics don’t interest her, but reconnecting with her father (a morose Mads Mikkelsen), who is also key to the defeating the Empire, does. Paired with the dashing and deadly Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the two set forth on their quest, neither trusting the other, and being warned with appropriate sardonic condescension by K-2SO that their odds of succeeding are less than stellar.
The story is straightforward enough. Good guys fighting those impossible odds while coming to terms with their own psychic scars. It’s a rousing story, but with less poetry than last year’s THE FORCE AWAKENS in its philosophical underpinnings. If the latter was fine calligraphy, this is more block lettering on a movie marquee. In that, it hews far more closely to A NEW HOPE. Alas, it is hampered by elements such as the recurring motif of a vital control panel inevitably being out in the open where the Storm Troopers lurk with extreme prejudice.
There is a pervasive and depressive darkness through which little wit shines. These are all, except for the blissful relief of K-2SO’s biting ripostes, very earnest characters played with complete commitment by the actors involved. In the case of Forest Whitaker, though, as a rebel who has become an extremist reviled by both sides, a little too much commitment. What we have here is a variety of ham that tries, and fails, to imbue taking a whiff from an oxygen mask with the same drama as the atomizing of a holy city.
Is there a scooch more planet-hopping than absolutely necessary? Maybe. It is, however, a chance to show off the state-of-the-art effects that we can come to expect from our Star Wars sagas. Bar scenes are populated with a lively assortment of life forms, a tentacled telepath extracts the truth from that defector I mentioned, and Donnie Yen as a blind Jedi as lethal adversary with his walking staff who remains cool under any kind of pressure. And, of course, all those TIE fighters, Imperial destroyers, and other assorted craft doing whiz-bang battle in space. It’s impressive, but so are the smaller touches, like a giant mesa that, as we pull away, reveals itself to be a carving of a recumbent Jedi crumbling away, or a reminder of why Darth Vader is so cranky beneath the helmet, cape and jack boots. As for why the Rebels are tricked out at one point in what looks very much like WWII military issue combat gear, one ponders. One moves on.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY enhances as well as annotates the Star Wars mythos, making the story we thought we knew in A NEW HOPE richer and more urgent. Forget those control panels, forgive the call-out to those damnably cloying Ewoks. This is a terrific film.