The thing that has always made George Lucas’ “Galaxy Far Far Away” so unique is its richness. Every character, every planet, every plot point and technical spec seems to have been considered. It’s a thoroughly imagined universe full more obsessive details and arcane backstories than we can probably imagine. There are no unanswerable questions, just untold tales — and unmade movies. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first stand-alone chapter in the franchise, tells one of those untold tales. The new film is set just prior to the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope). Of course, that was our introduction — our gateway drug — to Lucas’ world of Wookiees and droids and rebel heroes and imperial villains. But the thing about that movie was, the more you studied and dissected and parsed it, the more questions it raised. One of the biggest was: How did Princess Leia come to possess the plans to the Death Star that she hides in R2-D2 at the beginning of that film? Where did they come from? How were they obtained? Were they stolen or turned over by a traitor? Granted, these may not be the questions that keep a lot of us up at night. But thankfully, they do keep up people like Gareth Edwards. Because that one tiny missing puzzle piece is the entire narrative for Rogue One.
Edwards, the director of 2014’s Godzilla, gets the obsessive need-to-know curiosity that the most rabid Star Wars fans have always had. And he rewards it with Rogue One — a thrilling adventure that’s every bit as satisfying as The Force Awakens. Rogue One isn’t part of the central saga, it’s a side story — a gnostic sci-fi gospel (hence no opening crawl). Han Solo’s not here, Luke’s not here, Obi Wan’s not here. This is a whole new stable of characters operating on the fringes of the world we know by heart. When you think about it, that’s pretty exciting. And it opens up a world of cinematic possibilities moving forward. As in The Force Awakens, our hero this time out is a strong young woman searching for answers. Like all of the best heroes, she’s a reluctant one, nudged onto her journey’s path by fate. Played by Felicity Jones, Jyn Erso is the long-lost daughter of a famous scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who helped the Empire build the secret planet-destroying weapon known as the Death Star. When Rogue One opens, the Death Star is just a rumor — a game-changing what-if that has the Rebels terrified. The weapon is the diabolical project of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the film’s deliciously evil, lisping-threat villain.
There are a lot of new characters in Rogue One to keep track of. But there are also a few surprisingly familiar faces, including one who, it must be said, is a not-realistic-enough CGI creation that simply does not work. (You’ll know him when you see him because it looks like he wandered in from The Polar Express.) In addition to Jones’ Jyn, there’s Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, the Rebel insurgent who raised her after her father was taken away by the Empire to build its weapon of mass destruction. There’s also Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, a Rebel spy who helps her steal the Death Star plans. Then there’s a comic-relief droid (there’s always a comic-relief droid) named K-2SO who’s voiced by Alan Tudyk and is like C3PO’s more sarcastic, less fey cousin. Joining Jyn and company on her mission are Bodhi Rook, an Imperial pilot with a conscience (Riz Ahmed), a blind warrior monk (Donnie Yen), and his machine-gunner partner (Jiang Wen). Oh, and a certain Sith Lord makes an appearance.
The presence of Darth Vader in Rogue One was never a secret. Maybe because with so many new characters and in a stand-alone non-saga movie, they needed some star power. And the heavy-breathing baddie gets a few big scenes to sink his teeth into (including a Force Choke and a pun that frankly seems more Roger Moore-era Bond than Vader). But really this is Jyn’s story. Maybe even more than The Force Awakens was Rey’s. She is a fierce fighter, a rallying leader, and the kind role model any moviegoing parent would want to expose their daughters (and sons) to. And Jones plays her with a fiery warmth that turns her into more than just a pawn piece going through the larger storytelling paces. She makes her human. I wish Luna had a little more personality, a little more Han Solo swagger, to match her.
Rogue One is a Star Wars film, yes. And it feels epic. But what it really is at its core (underneath all of the gee-whiz special FX) is a heist flick. This motley band of thieves and scoundrels has to nick some blueprints. It’s Ocean’s 11 in space. And while the movie sags a bit in the middle (where it gets weighed down with exposition), the third-act heist is white-knuckle stuff. It’s when the movie really goes into hyperdrive. There’s a lot to take in in Rogue One. So many new uniforms, and planets, and incidental species crammed into the back of the frame, I’m looking forward to seeing it a second and third time. The two coolest settings are an Imperial-occupied moon called Jedha that looks like the Old City of Jerusalem and the tropical planet Scarif, which conjures strange images of stormtroopers on spring break.
Rogue One would have been a very good stand-alone sci-fi movie if it came out under a different name. But what makes it especially exciting is how it perfectly snaps right into the Star Wars timeline and connects events we already know by heart with ones that we never even considered. It makes you wonder how many other untold stories are waiting in the shadowy corners of Lucas’ galaxy far far away. B+