I hope you all savored The Force Awakens last year. We may never again feel either the anticipation of the first new live-action Star Wars movie in 10 years — let alone the first one by a truly skilled director in 25 years — or the giddy afterglow it produced, unless you were one of those scolds who ripped the movie’s plot to shreds as though that was what mattered.
Gareth Edwards’s prequel, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is an excellent action movie, and by far the most violent of the franchise — any similarities to the Star Wars Battlefront video games are probably not coincidental — but it lacks the sense of joy and adventure of Awakens. Draining the color out of a fun franchise by making it more “realistic” is kinda what Edwards does (see his 2014 Godzilla), and for better or worse, Rogue One puts the War back into Star Wars.
Scrappy young Jyn (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of Death Star designer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who reluctantly joins a motley crew that includes hunky Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind quasi-Jedi Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) on a somewhat convoluted mission to retrieve the plans for the almost-complete space station. (They’re the same plans that we know Princess Leia will store inside R2-D2 in A New Hope. How and where Leia got them was a question no casual viewer thought to ask in 1977, because it was irrelevant.)
Comic relief is provided mostly by K-2SO, whose blunt personality is reminiscent of Interstellar‘s TARS, and the comedy is a genuine relief amidst Rogue One‘s sometimes overwhelming dourness. Fitting with the darker tone, this is the first time we’ve seen the Rebel Alliance make bad decisions. In at least one instance, the leaders create an outright clusterfuck. It’s also the first Star Wars movie to follow Joe Bob Briggs’ first rule of drive-in moviemaking: Anyone may die at any moment.
Some had hoped George Lucas’s prequel trilogy would be largely ignored in the Disney era, but no such luck. One character mentions the Clone Wars, Coruscant is seen in flashback, and Jimmy Smits as Princess Leia’s father Bail Organa seals the deal.Notably, Smits is the only flesh-and-blood actor in Rogue One whom Lucas cast, which raises the issue of Grand Moff Tarkin. The decision was made to recreate the long-deceased Peter Cushing via CGI, and it’s … something. Far less nightmarish than the youngified Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy, for sure, but it’s not like Tarkin was such a beloved character that recasting him would have been blasphemy.
Rogue One may be more intense than fun, but it’s the best Star Wars prequel film by a long shot, and the final reel feels like a deliberate attempt to show the end of Revenge of the Sith how to do a direct New Hope lead-in right. Still, here’s to hoping the joy re-awakens in this cinematic universe before too long.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Opens Thursday at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, the AMC Metreon 16, the AMC Van Ness 14, the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, the CineArts @ Empire, the Presidio, and the Balboa Twin.