A fairly long time ago, in a land not very far away (Hollywood, to be exact), the creator of a billion dollar movie and merchandising empire parceled off this gold mine to another group of moguls (Walt Disney Studios), yet still holds an almost mythic-like control over much of the material. In other words, the new owners of the George Lucas “Star Wars” franchise has no intention of putting this golden goose out to pasture anytime soon.
Thus, just one short year after the release of the sixth sequel, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), fans of the series receive an early Christmas present with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which precedes Episode 4 (“A New Hope,” the original film from 1977) by one year and concentrates on the rebel alliance’s efforts to steal plans which could lead to the destruction of the Death Star (“That’s NOT a moon”). And while this picture is technically not an official part of the universe (just like 2008’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which took place between “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” and “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” or any of the Wolverine origins stories were not really part of the “X-Men” films), it is nevertheless an exciting and adventurous chapter which bodes well for the future of this franchise for many more efforts to come, if done correctly.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story tells a familiar tale with new faces, a new narrative, but ties everything together so nicely that it seamlessly fits into the first episode (although later to become episode four), the only “Star Wars” film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (I always thought that “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” should have been given a nod, as well, but hey . . .) Directed by Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”) and written by Chris Weitz (“Cinderella”) and Tony Gilroy (every Bourne film except “Jason Bourne”), but based, as previously written on George Lucas’ original story, which was itself inspired by films like the Flash Gordon serials and the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, as well as such critical works as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Frank Herbert’s Dune books.
Well, actually, it’s based on one line of that first screenplay where the rebellion leaders, with the Death Star’s plans in tow, inform the pilots that a great many people sacrifice their lives to obtain these documents. Thus, this is that story. While the film takes viewers to a number of planetary and moon-like destinations, from rebel bases to Galactic Empire security fortresses to mining complexes, we are introduced to Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, “Doctor Strange”), a reluctant science officer who had a part in the creation of the Empire’s ultimate weapon, but leaves when he discovers the potential harm it can cause. He is located on a remote planet by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, “Mississippi Grind”) and forced to return to continue his work.
Upon doing so, he leaves behind his tiny daughter, Jyn, who is found by militant rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, “Arrival” and an Oscar winner for “The Last King of Scotland”) and raised by him.
Years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”), on her way to an Imperial labor camp, is rescued by an alliance intelligence officer, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, “Blood Father”) and used as a tool to find out more information on a defecting Empire pilot (Riz Ahmed, “Nightcrawler”) being held by Gerrera. Joining them is the film’s only comic relief, K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk, who also did vocal work in “Moana”), a reprogrammed Imperial droid that’s a cross between C-3PO and General Grievious (from “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith”). He has some of the best lines — dry, sarcastic and just plain hilarious — in the movie and becomes one of the episode’s most memorable characters. Also tagging along is a blind semi-Jedi monk, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen, “Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster”) and his bodyguard, Baze (Wen Jiang, “The Sun Also Rises”).
Despite seeing what pain the Empire has caused, Jyn is still not endeared to the alliance, either. She has witnessed destruction from both sides and really wants no part of any organization. Andor, too, has committed unspeakable acts in the name of the rebellion, preferring to forget those moments and concentrate on the eventual promise of freedom from tyranny if the insurrection succeeds. But after a skirmish and near non-escape from the Death Star (funny, the Empire can design such a deadly device, but cannot figure out a way to keep a heavily-armored stormtrooper from being killed with a stick), Jyn comes aboard and is soon trying to convince rebel leaders where the plans for the Death Star are being held and how best to get them. The alliance doesn’t buy it, so the group decides to go “rogue” (hence the picture title) and plans an attack themselves.
Here, the pictures takes a decidedly “Saving Private Ryan” turn as rebels storm the beach and battle stormtroopers, star destroyers, Imperial walkers (the two- and the four-legged kinds), Krennic and even Vader in an effort to steal the plans. Well, since we’ve all seen “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,” there’s no spoiler alerts needed to let readers know they succeed, but at great sacrifice. There will be even more gasps of recognition as the picture ends with one more nostalgic turn. The screening I attended then burst into spontaneous applause.
Ardent fans will be most pleased with this installment, while younger viewers will be caught up in the explosions and great battle scenes. Thanks to the efforts of Greig Fraser’s cinematography (he lensed “Zero Dark Thirty,” among others) and a special effects team led by Neil Corbould (Oscar winner for his work on “Gravity”), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story lives up to the top-flight bar raised by other films in the franchise and does not disappoint visually or otherwise (the recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin is uncanny and almost flawless in its execution and will take fans back to the 1977 motion picture). Jones — who redeems herself from her turn in the unfortunate “Inferno” earlier this year — is a standout as the feisty, but reluctant, heroine, while Mendelsohn seems to relish in his villainy, even challenging Vader and Tarkin for the most sneering bad guy in the “Star Wars” lexicon.
Beware, however, there are no cute Ewoks or annoyingly cloy characters like Jar-Jar Binks to laugh at here. With it’s bleak storyline and intense battles, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is one of the darkest Star Wars episodes since “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” but is also one of the best after that movie and the inaugural “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.”