Don’t call it a prequel.
The first stand-alone movie outside the Skywalker saga, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, takes place directly before 1977’s Star Wars (A New Hope).
As anyone who’s seen that sci-fi classic will remember, the Death Star was blown up because Luke Skywalker and his band of rebel pilots had secret plans of the base that revealed its fatal flaw. Rogue One is the story of how those secret plans were stolen, by a band of brave strangers willing to fight back against tyranny.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has been on her own since she was a young girl, when the malevolent Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) murdered her mother and kidnapped her scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) for a mysterious project. Rescued by extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) and then set adrift in a harsh world, Jyn now leads a rogue life that has landed her in jail.
Rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) learns of a pilot named Bodhi Rook (Nightcrawler‘s Riz Ahmed) who has defected from the Empire with a secret message from Galen to Gerrera, the latter of whom has became a hard-to-find recluse.
Freeing Jyn from prison to help get him an audience with Gerrera, they travel to the planet of Jedha — aided by the hilariously flippant droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). There they find more allies in blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and gunman Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).
Galen’s message reveals that while he’s responsible for designing the superweapon to be known as the Death Star, he secretly built a fatal flaw into the structure that can be used to destroy it. The plans, he directs them, are under the tightest of security on the guarded planet Scarif.
No points for guessing if they decide to go.
With a movie like this, taking place in so many new settings on so many new worlds, it’s vital for the director to be able to keep from losing audience members in confusion, and so much of Rogue One‘s success on that count belongs to Gareth Edwards.
With just 2010’s Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla under his belt, Edwards has an expertly steady control of tone and look through Rogue One that makes the movie feel alive in an even sharper way than last year’s The Force Awakens. It’s not always as entertaining as J.J. Abrams’ film on a basic level, but it’s the most artistically confident movie to come out of the Star Wars franchise.
It’s also thanks to Edwards (and cinematographer Greig Fraser) that Rogue One is as entertaining as it is, considering how unoriginal much of the script is.
The quest to steal the plan that will ultimately lead to the Rebel’s (short-lived) victory over the Empire in A New Hope makes up the core of Rogue One, but the first act exists purely for the sake of assembling the team, member by member, in the same way as everything from The Magnificent Seven to The Avengers to The Lord of the Rings, going back to Seven Samurai. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.
Even the bulk of the movie is so directly influenced by movies like Saving Private Ryan and Zero Dark Thirty — not to mention other Star Wars entries — it keeps from ever truly catching fire and becoming a great Star Wars movie, though it comes achingly close.
Rogue One could have benefitted from being more accessible in its opening scenes. Labeling every new location on-screen only serves to draw attention to all the new names and places being thrown at audiences, at what might be slightly too fast a pace for those who don’t already know they kyber crystals from their grand moffs.
Also, the script from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy does assume — fairly or not — that every person watching has seen a Star Wars movie and understands the basics of the universe; if this happens to be your first entry into the saga, good luck.
While many of the characters feel familiar in archetype, what’s refreshingly different is that Rogue One is composed of a cast of… well, rogues. Even the two leads are likeable scoundrels and outcasts, like if Han Solo actually played the lead in a Star Wars movie. It’s like a variety pack of cereal without the boring Corn Flakes, which gives it a spirit matched well by its wonderful cast of actors.
Just as Edwards supplies the best directing yet in the series, this cast is the most talented crew yet to populate the cinematic galaxy far, far away. Jones, hot off of October’s Inferno, creates one of the strongest female roles in modern sci-fi. Krennic is a truly malevolent force, thanks wholly to Mendelsohn. Yen, so fantastic in the Ip Man movies, brings a joyful playfulness to Chirrut. And Tudyk steals almost every scene K-2SO is in, with his immaculate comic timing and clever voice work.
Cliches exist for the reason that when done well, they work, and Rogue One is a good example of that. It doesn’t handle many of the same cliches quite as well as something like Inception, but for a version of Seven Samurai set amongst lightsabers and hyperdrives, it’s damned good time and a perfect backstory to Star Wars, “prequel” or not.