Disney and Lucasfilm gave “Star Wars” fans “The Force Awakens” last holiday season, which delighted some and seemed like a sack of coal to others.
“Star Wars” fans must have been extra good this year because the 2016 prequel to “Star Wars: A New Hope” delivers an original story with a darker tone than that of the original trilogy. Despite its underused cast and poorly defined characters, the action novelty of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” makes it one of the strongest entries in the franchise.
Set immediately before the events of “A New Hope,” “Rogue One” follows petty criminal Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and their crew of rebel scum trying to steal the construction plans for the planet-destroying Death Star. The new rugged heroes paired with fan favorites like Darth Vader and suspenseful moments ensure “Rogue One” is never boring, despite its prequel status.
“The Force Awakens” lacked originality and was little more than a shot-for-shot rehash of episode four. The new story in “Rogue One” makes up for the shortcoming. Where the previous six Star Wars films focus on the exploits of the Skywalker family and their allies, the heroes of the 2016 film are a ragtag group of ordinary non-Jedi drawn together by circumstance and the need to stop the villainous Empire.
While the story visits some familiar planets like Yavin IV and includes appearances from old characters such as R2-D2 and C-3PO, the plot’s emphasis lies heavily on the new faces and places, lending the franchise a refreshing unfamiliarity.
“Rogue One” contains plenty of references to the original trilogy to keep old-school fans excited. By far the most rewarding parts were James Earl Jones’ return to voice Darth Vader and the space wizard-samurai hacking through rebel soldiers.
While its new characters are a charming and welcome break from the Skywalkers and the Jedi, “Rogue One” is the rare film that suffers from too little backstory rather than too much.
The film features an ethnically diverse cast of award-winning actors, like Forrest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, and Mads Mikkelsen; however, they are wasted in this film – victims of the lack of screen time and backstory that inhibits emotional investment. Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera is supposed to be a fearsome war veteran, but does little more than wheeze about people conspiring to assassinate him for a few minutes, leaving the audience wondering why people fear him other than his imposing set of armor.
Chirrut Îmwe, played by international Kung Fu star Yen, is only given one impressive yet brief fight scene. Although his character should have all the wisdom of a mystic blind man in touch with the Force, his meditative mantra, “I’m one with the Force, and the Force is with me,” comes off a more like fanatical babbling.
Leads Jones and Luna play Jyn and Cassian as the stereotypical underdog heroes, but not well enough to stand with the other big names in the franchise such as Rey or Han Solo.”Star Wars” is nothing without its snarky robots, and Alan Tudyk steals the show as the droid K-2SO, delivering the film’s best jokes with impeccable dry sarcasm.
Jones lends Jyn a charming stubbornness and devotion to her companions with her devil-may-care attitude and impassioned speeches, but falls short of the rawness and likability of Daisy Ridley’s Rey or the strength and sarcasm of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia.
Cassian, the scoundrel with the questionable moral compass, has great monologues and moments of poignant emotion, but he isn’t as dashing as Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron or as iconic as Harrison Ford’s Han Solo.
In terms of visual beauty and action, “Rogue One” is a giddy joyride. The lifelike alien makeup and vibrant costumes pop against the desert landscapes. Planetary views from space convey a sense of scale and grandeur that is galactic. Planets offer a variety of landscapes, from deserts to forests to beaches, granting breathtaking views.
The battle scenes and space dogfights are fraught with danger. Although the joke goes that Stormtroopers are useless bad shots, the epic shootouts, giant weapons and deadly aerial fights in “Rogue One” are the first in any “Star Wars” film that demonstrate the true suffocating might of the Empire and the dogged determination of the rebels.
“Rogue One” is the film that “Star Wars” fans have been asking for. Its engaging action sequences demonstrate the wealth of ideas and creativity still available in the “Star Wars” universe; it will hopefully set the standard for the next several films in the franchise.