Since the “Star Wars” prequels were successful, beloved by all, and in no way a blemish to the franchise’s reputation, the new owners of George Lucas’ toybox figured they should make another one. “Rogue One” is Episode 3.9, taking place after “Revenge of the Sith” and immediately before “A New Hope,” populated mostly by characters we have not seen before and cannot logically expect to see again.
It’s just as well. Whereas last year’s “The Force Awakens” introduced a handful of memorable, well-defined, likable new characters, this chapter (directed by “Godzilla” rebooter Gareth Edwards) is short on personality, long on military strategy. Notwithstanding the series’ title, this is the first entry that fits the “war movie” genre, focusing as it does on the logistics of the ongoing battle between the evil Empire and the plucky Rebellion rather than on the people (and aliens and robots) fighting it. In the process, some intriguing (and newly relevant) questions about government, fascism, and freedom are raised, but they are frustratingly under-explored.
As is often the case in movies that don’t have many interesting characters, the most interesting character is the villain — Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), an ambitious, vainglorious imperial officer who has abducted a Rebel scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), and forced him to design a planet-sized weapon, a sort of “death star,” if you will. Erso’s daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), has been raised by one Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a freedom fighter whose extremist views have caused the Rebellion to disavow him. Now Jyn is approached by the Rebels to help them contact Saw Gerrera, who in turn can put them in touch with an imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) who’s collaborating with the resistance movement and has the scoop on this Death Star thing.
Other personnel include a nondescript Rebel pilot, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); a reprogrammed imperial droid named K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk) who fills the C-3PO role of prissy, sarcastic robot; a blind man, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), who uses the Force to be an excellent fighter; and his companion, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who is skeptical of the Force and is a great fighter on his own. This group plots to break into an Empire facility on the planet Scarif and steal the Death Star plans, in which Galen Erso has hidden a secret weakness that, once you know about it, makes it fairly easy to destroy the Death Star (thus filling a 40-year-old plot hole). We meet numerous other figures on both sides of the war, including Rebel leaders who are wary of this plan, but they all tend to blend together, mired in purely functional dialogue (written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) that’s loaded with planet names and technical jargon.
But the last 40 minutes have that familiar “Star Wars”-y feel, cutting back and forth between action on the ground, action in the skies, and action inside the imperial building, where Jyn, Cassian, and the gang do customary “Star Wars” things like conking Stormtroopers on the head and wearing their costumes. They just don’t do it with any particular flair or panache; they are no Rey and Finn, that’s for sure. A gentleman by the name of Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones) shows up to do a bit of Force-choking and light-saber-slashing, and Grand Moff Tarkin is Vader’s lieutenant, just as in “A New Hope.” Unfortunately, Peter Cushing, the actor who played Tarkin, died in 1994. Faced with a choice between recasting the role and creating the character with subpar, distracting CGI, the filmmakers thought: What would George Lucas do?
I ultimately have the same problem with this film as I did with another recent franchise spinoff, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and that is: We’re already familiar with this universe and its mythology. It’s not enough to splash it on the screen and play around in it for a while. You need to DO something with it. “Rogue One” adds a few colorful details to the saga, and certainly there is pleasure in revisiting a favorite place you’ve been many times before. But it’s not an “event” film. For the first time, it really does just feel like an episode.
P.S. If I recall correctly, this movie also has an octopus that can read minds. Just FYI.
B- (2 hrs., 14 min.; )