I’m not a Star Wars geek–there were many characters in Rogue One: A Star Wars story that have appeared in other Star Wars films, but I didn’t recognize them (except for the crustacean-like Admiral, who memorably said “It’s a trap!”). Therefore, there may be many subtleties I missed. But the first “stand-alone” Star Wars picture was a well-done action yarn, with an especially strong last act.
In the grand scheme of things, Rogue One falls just before Star Wars IV: A New Hope, or to everybody else the first Star Wars. In fact, for those coming cold into this film there might be some confusion (my girlfriend, who had only seen Star Wars VII last year, had to be filled in at several points). So stand-alone is a bit of a misnomer, because events in this film lead directly to the next film.
That event is stealing the plans for the Death Star, which is blown up in Star Wars IV (sorry for the 40-year-old spoiler). At the outset of this film, a scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) who is essential to building the Death Star, is forcibly returned after trying to disappear. His wife is killed by the villain of his piece, a project manager of sorts who is constantly looking for approval. Played by Ben Mendelsohn, he seems right out of every office I worked in.
Mikkelson’s daughter escapes, and is raised by a rebel (Forest Whitaker, in a very bizarre performance). She grows up to be Felicity Jones, and she’s something of a juvenile delinquent, but a defecting Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) delivers a hologram that indicates that Mikkelsen has intentionally built a flaw into the Death Star. The Rebel Alliance uses a hotshot pilot (Diego Luna) and his droid (Alan Tudyk) to use her to get to her father and the plans to the planet-size weapon.
Whew. That’s all established in the first act, the rest is a mixture of comic book dialogue and spaceships fighting each other. This is where the film is least interesting–the transformation of Jones and Luna (who starts to see her as something more than just as a cog) is too melodramatic–but when Jones and Luna get a little team together, including Ahmed, Donnie Yen as a Zatiochi-like blind swordsman, and Jiang Wen, who looks like Genghis Khan, the film started to click (the diversity of this group was very refreshing, also).
The last act may contain the most memorable scene of the character who has appeared in seven of the eight Star Wars films–Darth Vader. He has a kick-ass fight scene that really gets the blood pumping. Of all the characters in this series, he may be George Lucas’s greatest creation, seen only in shadow at first, but introduced by his theme song (does any movie character have their own recognizable theme?).
I am certainly not going to spoil the end, but don’t expect a direct sequel. I take it the next film is about Han Solo’s early years, and then we get Star Wars VIII. But this film, directed competently by Gareth Edwards, as there is no end in sight for the number of stories that can be told.
A quick word about using CGI to resurrect dead characters: Peter Cushing, who died many years ago, was sort of photo-shopped into his film as General Tarken, a part he played in the first film. Apparently they had permission from Cushing’s family, but I don’t like it. The CGI is not entirely convincing. And (read no further if you haven’t seen the film yet) the inclusion of a young Carrie Fisher as Princes Leia was especially disturbing. Of course, when the film was released Fisher was very much alive, but seeing her like that after her death was jarring. There’s nothing they could about it, of course, but I’m just sayin’.