Rogue One: A Star Wars Story   (2016) dir. Gareth Edwards Rated: PG-13  image: ©2016  Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
dir. Gareth Edwards
Rated: PG-13
image: ©2016 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The opening crawl is missing. The opening crawl is missing! Those famous paragraphs that follow “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” in every Star Wars movie – one of the most iconic things about the series – are absent in Rogue One. I don’t know if that set off shrieks of rage around the internet. I purposefully avoid that sort of thing, but it’s not hard to imagine the internet outrage machine losing their collective minds about this when the mere mention that the next James Bond might be portrayed by a black man nearly broke the internet forever.

Director Gareth Edwards took the opportunity of ditching this de rigueur element as a way to set his entry in the Star Wars franchise apart, while also including a sly nod to it, if you’re paying attention. The opening action is set on a planet like Saturn, complimented with a series of rings. Edwards’ camera drifts in space, looking at the planet, and tilting up to reveal the majestic rings above. In an ingenious touch, the special effects department gave a funny quality to those rings. In a way, they look just like blurry, upside down, and backwards text. We, and the film, Edwards is intimating, are just underneath the events of the official “Episodes” that make up the main story arc of the Star Wars universe. This movie doesn’t have an Episode number, after all. Its full title is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

This is the first real test of Disney’s plan to expand the film universe it bought from creator George Lucas. Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy proved to be great choices to run this test. Their film is the most thematically dense in the series since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s also action packed without relying too heavily on previous Star Wars plots for inspiration, the biggest weakness of last year’s The Force Awakens. Rouge One walks the fine line of being its own thing while still paying homage to the episodes. It’s a line the film occasionally oversteps; some of the references feel excessive. It’s an easy fault to forgive, though, considering how entertaining the movie is.

The events of Rogue One directly precede the action at the beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope. We learn about the circumstances and individuals involved in obtaining the stolen Death Star plans that Princess Leia frantically smuggles to Obi-Wan Kenobi. In a sequence that the opening crawl might have explained had the filmmakers not eschewed it, Rogue One opens fifteen years prior to the main action of the film. We meet research scientist Galen Erso, a man in hiding with his family from the Galactic Empire. Erso was in the employ of the Empire as a weapons developer, but fled when he could no longer morally rationalize his work. In a confrontation with Orson Krennic, a man rising fast in the Imperial ranks, Stormtroopers kill Galen’s wife, and his young daughter Jyn escapes from Krennic with the help of Saw Gerrera, a freedom fighter with the Rebellion.

The movie puts some weighty dynamics in play, the freshest and most compelling since the shocking (at the time) revelation that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father. The character of Saw Gerrera is a prime example. Every other movie in the series has operated under the assumption that those associated with the Empire are bad, and those with the Rebellion are good. The character Finn, a Stormtrooper who questions his loyalties, was a significant break from this in The Force Awakens. Gerrera complicates things even more, however, because he is a rebel that has broken from the leadership and become an extremist. His treatment of an Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook who has defected and wishes to share classified information with the Rebellion is especially troubling. What makes it even more so is the performance of Forest Whitaker as Gerrera. Whitaker is completely unhinged, masterfully blurring the line between freedom fighter and terrorist. It’s a chilling portrayal.

Just as captivating is the relationship between the now adult Jyn and a Rebel Alliance intelligence officer named Cassian Andor. The struggle between Empire and Rebellion has destroyed Jyn’s family, and as a result she avoids the conflict altogether. In a tense exchange, Cassian reminds Jyn that she is not the only one who has suffered. He tells her he’s been fighting since he was six years old, and reminds her that he has lost plenty because of this war, too. Scenes like this give the Star Wars universe a welcome depth.  Actors Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, playing Jyn and Cassian respectively, are more than capable of bringing the gravitas required for these moments.

Rogue One works on other levels as well. As pure entertainment, the movie’s action sequences don’t disappoint. Edwards stages the earth-bound battle scenes with a gritty realism that rivals the best World War II movies. During a fire fight with the Empire, Jyn makes a potentially dangerous decision to save a young girl. The child is caught in the open, wailing for help. The sequence brought a similar scene from Saving Private Ryan to mind. The outer space aerial dogfights, for which the Star Wars films are famous, are likewise taut and packed with excitement. The special effects teams did a phenomenal job of making every ship from Star Destroyers to X-Wings look outstanding.

A few poor decisions about special effects diminish the overall impact of the movie. Though the look of completely digital actors in films have come a long way (even since a younger version of Jeff Bridges was unveiled in 2010’s Tron: Legacy), they are still quite unsettling. The Uncanny Valley quality was enough to take me out of the movie completely. There are two such instances in Rogue One. Instead of recasting the role of Grand Moff Tarkin, the filmmakers decided to digitally simulate a performance from the late Peter Cushing, the actor who made the role iconic in A New Hope. The downright creepiness of the Tarkin character is distracting, and simply recasting the part, like they did for the character Mon Mothma, would have been preferable. This digital trickery is used briefly for another iconic character in the last moments of the film. I won’t spoil who it is here, but the effect is the same.

The writing, while largely effective, does suffer in a few instances from being too eager to reference the original films. We meet a pair of characters from the Mos Eisley space cantina sequence in A New Hope. Frankly, they add nothing to the film. They just serve as a call back to the initiated. Missteps like that aside, screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy delve into a darker tone for Rogue One that explores a pathos never before seen in a Star Wars movie. They also masterfully interject moments of levity, mainly through the droid character K-2SO. The way the robot is written is delightfully reminiscent of the Laurel and Hardy quality of original droid duo C-3PO and R2D2. Admittedly, a lot of the charm comes from the voice performance of Alan Tudyk, which the actor honed after years of playing wiseacre parts like Wash on the television series Firefly.

The overall effect of Rogue One is a satisfying mixture of old and new. The addition of thematic richness is a welcome change from simply retreading the earlier films’ plots. Meanwhile, the movie is heavily steeped in Star Wars iconography, and that’s handled mostly well. This entry in the series is an encouraging sign that future installments will remain fresh and vital while also maintaining a strong connection to the previous movies.

Why it got 4 stars:
- Rogue One is a satisfying blend of pure entertainment and heavier themes. The weakest parts about it (the ill advised digital actors and too many pointless call backs to the original films) don't detract enough to diminish how much fun I had with it.  

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Edwards and his crew's attention to detail really pay off in the final moments of the film. I can't wait to watch Rogue One and A New Hope back to back. I think it will be a really rewarding experience. 
- There is one exceptionally terrible line of dialog that I can't let pass without comment. Darth Vader is in the act of punishing insubordination by choking the offender using the force. As he lets up on the victim, he says, "Be careful not to choke on your aspirations..." Groan.
- Rogue One is ostensibly the story of Jyn, and her internal and external struggles with the Galactic Empire, the force that has turned her world upside down since she was just a girl. It really functions as a strong ensemble movie, and all the actors involved work incredibly well together.
- We got a brand new planet setting. We've never seen a tropical beach setting in a Star Wars movie, and it was an imaginative addition.