"Star Wars" has gone rogue from the original saga with its first stand-alone film and the Force is still strong. "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is great and director Gareth Edwards ("Godzilla") doesn't hold back; "Rogue One" is pure, unbridled "Star Wars."
With a much darker – and violent – tone from most "Star Wars" films, "Rogue One" carries an energy and rawness not seen in a "Star Wars" film since 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back". "Rogue" carries an air-tight script with new and memorable characters and is fused with some truly dynamic action sequences that at once tap into nostalgia while also creating fresh awe, which is no easy feat in 2017, since we've just about seen all there is to see in an action flick.
The wheel is hardly re-invented here but "Rogue One" does itself a huge favor by creating a fresh new story without relying too much on callbacks to the rest of the franchise. Sure, those callbacks exist – some less subtle than others – but thankfully this is mostly new material here. Fans should be enamored by some revisiting characters and props, but "Rogue One's" strength is derived from weaving an entirely new tapestry for "Star Wars" fans to digest.
Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, "Rogue One" harkens back to classic Hollywood war films like "The Guns of Navarone" and "Saving Private Ryan." While there are action scenes aplenty, the story focuses more on the interplay between the brotherhood of the Rogue One team. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a disillusioned child of the Empire. When she reaches word from the Alliance that her long-lost father (Mads Mikkelsen) – architect of the Death Star - has surfaced and is attempting to make contact, she is assigned as leader or a small team tasked with retrieving the Death Star plans.
"Star Wars" aside, "Rogue One" is a superb action film. Gareth Edwards pulls out all the stops with some phenomenal set pieces. Like many great Hollywood war films, the action sequences intensify as the film progresses and the stakes become higher.
Both heroes and villains are given equal weight in this stand-alone story. Jones' Jyn Erso is another strong and welcome addition to the "Star Wars" universe, though she is clearly lacking the spark immediately noticeable with Daisy Ridley's Rae in "The Force Awakens." It takes Jyn almost two-thirds of the film to strike a strong emotional connection. Jones, though, does the best with her character, showing grit and humor that's been the cornerstone of all "Star Wars" heroes. This, compared with Jones' devastating performance in "A Monster Calls" (also in theaters) shows what a dynamic actor she is.
Jyn is joined by a ragtag team of rebels, a staple of those great Golden and Silver-aged Hollywood war films. Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, and Riz Ahmed flesh out this band of brothers. Alan Tudyk, as the vitriolic droid K-2SO, carries the band with his frequent caustic remarks. He will surely become a new fan favorite.
No "Star Wars" film is complete without memorable villains and the great Ben Mendelsohn takes the lead villain gig as Krennic, the director behind the Death Star operation. His sly delivery, which has made him such a compelling character actor, plays off very well here. Krennic is evil but also pathetic with his fleeting attempts to please the Emperor. Mendelsohn's balancing act is perfect and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. The other major villain is Governor Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing in "A New Hope." This may create consternation among old fans as Cushing's face is digital added to another actor's. While it's great to see an old favorite again, it does take some getting used to and runs the risk of not aging well as technology improves in the years ahead.
Although he is shown in the trailers, it is still a showstopper to see Darth Vader return as the frightening movie monster he was originally intended to be.
And "Rogue One" answers an age-old question: How does Darth Vader take a bath? Seriously.
Each and every scene is plastered with detail and creature effects, which clearly harkens back to that tangibility of the original trilogy. "The Force Awakens" certainly made a valiant effort to bring the franchise back to the “good-old-days” with physical models and practical effects, but "Rogue One" puts even that film to shame with its seamless blend of digital and practical effects. There might be more new creatures in "Rogue One" alone than the original three films combined. It's a feast of delights for fans of creatures.
Composer Michael Giacchino has the unenviable task of being the first composer not named John Williams to score a "Star Wars" movie. Giacchino has unequivocally written a knock-out score steeped in "Star Wars" tradition without sacrificing his own unique voice. The score features memorable themes – something that is also very difficult to accomplish in 2017 – while occasionally weaving in some of Williams' classics. Jyn's theme, which grounds the entire score, is a highlight in Giacchino's body of work.
"Rogue One" could have been the start of the watering down for the "Star Wars" franchise by breaking away from the saga trilogies, but this is anything but. "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is just pure "Star Wars" from start to finish.
Walt Disney Picture. Running time: 2 hours and 13 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13.