Review: 'Rogue One'
The stand-alone Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a battle movie, heavy on the war, light on the stars. Many have heard that George Lucas once cut footage from WWII dogfights into the work-print of the first Star Wars film, to give previewers an idea of what the film would look like once the effects were done. Rogue One, then, comes full circle. It's a World War II movie in space.
The finale is on the planet Scarif, a world of surf and tropical reefs; the attack wings shooting, bombing and crashing are like a futuristic version of the Pacific theater.
It's set during the rise of Lord Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin. More about Vader momentarily, but the latter is yet Governor Tarkin, and played by Peter Cushing's digitized ghost. It's hard not to stare at the apparition of an actor dead for 22 years—the movements are a little artificial, but it's him, all right. No one had seriously thought the grave could hold Peter Cushing, anyway.
Rogue One answers a question that's been plaguing geeks for decades: why did the Death Star have such a glaring design flaw, so similar to the ever-convenient Self-Destruct Button in spy movies? Having answered this, director Gareth Edwards races along to the climax of a dangerous mission, carried out with a mixed cast of funny-name bearers. Central to this tale is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, as determined and rabbitty as ever). She has grounds for wrath; her mother was killed by stormtroopers back on their rainy black-earthed home planet—a vision that blends Kauai and Donegal. Her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), who had been hiding from the Empire, is your classic kidnapped scientist, brought back to labor on the planet-busting weapon with an old acquaintance (Ben Mendelsohn.)
On a nearby planet, the dead Jedi's towering main temple is abandoned, but it's being salvaged for a mineral or something called kyber, which fuels both the light sabers and the death star alike. The Central Asian-like city around the temple teams with rebellious life—a town about to blow into insurrection against the Empire's occupiers.
There, rebels join Jyn to eventually become the crew of a battered Imperial freighter stolen and renamed "Rogue One." The crew roster includes a brain-damaged pilot, as well as Chirrut, a blind semi-Jedi with zen archer skills (Donnie Yen, whose tremendous martial artistry is the single most rapture-inducing part of the show).
With the rebels is a reprogrammed droid. K2SO (voiced by Serenity crewman Alan Tudyk). He's long-legged, 8 feet tall, snippy, and only intermittently obedient. "I thought I told you to wait in the ship!" K2SO is scolded by his companion, Cassien (Diego Luna). As per the nerve-wracked Dr. Smith in TV's Lost in Space, this android gives the defeatists in the audience someone to cheer on: he likes to recite the exact percentages of how fail prone a given mission might be.
Darth Vader turns up twice, once to show off his air-strangling trick—bemusing that such a gasper would want to make other people suffocate. The dark lord in his home inside a volcano citadel with a lava moat. Seemingly still recovering from his injuries from Revenge of the Sith, he stews in an aquarium full of chemicals. Nice to have him back, but Vader is not scheming up anything magically treacherous.
The movie is crowded and way too busy. The characters make stylish entrances—for example, Forest Whitaker as a blasted-up fanatic, stumping in on mismatched prosthetic feet—but they make even swifter departures. The Empire Shoots Back, for once, and with accuracy. Those who prefer the series' explosions to the double-moonrises should be slaked by what happens. It's all action, hopping from planet to planet and blasting all the way. That makes it faster and more serious than anything in the series.
The seriousness also makes it less exhilarating than last year's relaunch. One really wants to leave the recent election out of this experience, to go, watch and forget about the desperate times. This is difficult, given the huge emphasis on revolutionary self-sacrifice and battle lines being drawn; it's an unpleasant kind of zeitgeist offered here—premonitions of possible struggle to come.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
PG-13; 133 Min.