A well-crafted and thoughtful story drives Rogue One - in a sandbox that provides a perfect blend of modern action and classic Star Wars style.
In the time between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, a rebellion has started to take shape - thanks to the efforts of former Imperial senators, such as Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, who oppose the Empire's fascist policies. Operating out of their secret base on Yavin 4, the Rebellion undermines Imperial operations (thanks to defectors, spies, bounty hunters, militia men, and even assassins) but struggles to turn isolated rebel cells into a functional alliance - while the Emperor and Darth Vader prepare to tighten their hold on the galaxy (with the aid of a new super weapon, the Death Star, capable of destroying entire planets in a single blast).
Hoping to unite the disparate Rebel factions, Alliance leaders enlist the help of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) - a longtime friend of extremist Rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Believing that Gerrera might bring her one step closer to finding her estranged father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the engineer responsible for designing the Death Star, Jyn agrees to aid the Rebels. However, when her search for Gerrera is interrupted by a deadly clash between Rebel insurgents and Imperial Stormtroopers, Jyn discovers that she can no longer sit on the sidelines - and sets out with a band of roguish heroes on a mission to unite the Rebels and get revenge on the man responsible for tearing her own family apart.
Following the critical and commercial success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney's intention to roll out Star Wars spin-off movies every-two years was met with a mix of excitement and trepidation. After all, while Star Wars: Episode 7 managed to revive interest in the big screen series, prequel films never fared as well - making Rogue One: A Star Wars Story all the more risky a proposition for Disney coming off one of the biggest franchise relaunches in film history. Thankfully, director Gareth Edwards' Rogue One isn't just a quality Star Wars installment, it's a rousing sci-fi drama packed with thrilling action set-pieces, charming characters, and fun nods for viewers at all levels of Star Wars fandom (from casual theatergoers, to longtime Force-lovers, to die-hard members of the 501st Legion).
Edwards doesn't deliver a perfect film, and certain aspects of the movie will be familiar (especially to viewers who thought The Force Awakens borrowed too much from A New Hope); yet, Rogue One proves a Skywalker isn't essential to telling rich stories and spirited big screen adventures in that galaxy far, far away. Instead of a meaningless cash grab, Edwards ensures the Rogue One narrative is additive to the mythology, weaving a number of well-known faces and story threads into the spinoff tale, while also servicing the core tale and its characters. By its very presence in the larger film series, Rogue One gives new weight to the events of A New Hope and beyond - most notably Luke Skywalker's fateful run on the Death Star trench.
Even though Rogue One is set in the time between prequels (criticized for their heavy reliance on hollow CGI) and the original series (which might now appear a bit "aged" to younger moviegoers), Edwards presents an immersive blend of practical and computer effects that increase the scale of Star Wars without sacrificing its aesthetic roots. Action set pieces succeed in mimicking the feel of classic Star Wars space battles with the added benefit of state-of-the-art effects and blockbuster spectacle.
That said, Rogue One isn't just about explosive X-Wing battles and stitching together series mythology, the film prioritizes what has always been the franchise's greatest strength: endearing (not to mention badass) characters. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a strong lead - as both a seasoned (albeit vulnerable) warrior and emotional entry point for viewers into this Star Wars story. Through Jyn, Edwards riffs on established Star Wars themes (a child chosen to undo the damage a parent has wrought, for instance); yet, without the pressure of connecting Rogue One to the Skywalker storyline, Jyn sets the stage for an especially sincere side-story within the larger saga.
Similarly, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) offers a fresh perspective on the Rebellion - which, in a universe defined by Light and Dark "sides", has typically been presented as an unblemished group of do-gooders. Instead, Edwards presents Cassian and other Rebels as desperate, cold-hearted, killers (embodied by Whitaker's extremist Saw Gerrera). Viewers may not identify with Cassian's no-nonsense wartime perspective in the same way they might classic scoundrels, such as Han Solo, but Cassian is pivotal in contextualizing how Jyn, and other "hopeful" heroes, transform the Rebellion into a functional Rebel Alliance.
The remaining members of Rogue One are equally effective. Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) along with former Jedha temple guards Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) are each provided moments of heart, humor, and heroism; though, it is Cassian's droid co-pilot K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) that steals the spotlight in most scenes. The film also includes surprise appearances from Star Wars heroes (and villains) that should delight fans, even if many of the more subtle ones are lost on casual viewers. Some are more substantive than others but (thankfully) none of them are out of place in the broader context of this Star Wars story.
Rogue One villains are slightly less defined - given that the larger threat is presented as the Imperial war machine rather than any one member of it. Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the Imperial Director of Weapons Research, is a solid foil to Jyn and provides a thoughtful juxtaposition for Death Star engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) but Krennic is mostly reduced to threatening conversations and grand aspirations - rather than presenting a unique reference point for audiences to understand the Empire. For that reason, Krennic is a fitting villain for the Erso family story but isn't a particularly memorable entry in the Star Wars villain roster - especially given that Rogue One also features new scenes of Darth Vader and Moff Tarkin. Viewers hoping for a significant amount of Vader and Tarkin may leave underwhelmed (and/or unsure how they feel about a CGI Peter Cushing) but both characters are given compelling roles in the film - especially Vader's contributions to the final act.
Rogue One is also playing in 3D and IMAX 3D. There's no question that Edwards furnishes reason to spring for a premium ticket - especially in the film's visual-rich action set-pieces. For Star Wars die-hards and viewers who normally default to an upgraded presentation, 3D and IMAX 3D are both worthwhile; though, moviegoers who prefer 2D, or simply don't want to add cost, won't miss anything essential.
The first live-action inbetweequel of the Star Wars saga, Rogue One provides an experience that will thrill fans and casual filmgoers, alike. A well-crafted and thoughtful story drives Rogue One - in a sandbox that provides a perfect blend of modern action and classic Star Wars style. Thanks to a self-contained tale that prioritizes meaningful character drama, Rogue One succeeds as a standalone experience (one that doesn't require extensive experience with the franchise) and connections to the Star Wars saga (big and small) add real value to future events in the saga - while a string of fun easter eggs should put a smile on the face of longtime fans.
A note to parents and those planning to bring children to Rogue One: As the Rogue One filmmakers have suggested, the spinoff is a war-time story. It's full of fun moments, humor, and lovable characters - but it is an overall "grim" chapter in the Star Wars universe. As a result, while the movie might be fine for certain young viewers, parents should go into the film with a clear idea of what they feel is right for their children.