“Prequel” has become a dirty word in a galaxy far, far away, which might explain why this spin-off goes by the lengthier title of ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. Yet Gareth Edwards’ first film in a new anthology franchise immediately establishes itself as tonally different from all predecessors, not only eschewing with opening crawls and familiar themes, but in stepping away from the Skywalker saga that has defined the series for almost 40 years.
One of the first things viewers were told in 1977 was that “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon,” and ROGUE ONE builds a film around that sentence fragment. A young Jyn Erso is forced into hiding when her scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is reluctantly recruited by Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) into completing his work on the Death Star. Years later, an adult Jyn (Felicity Jones) is encouraged by the Rebels to join a ragtag team to track down her father and stop the weapon.
If George Lucas’ prequel trilogy gave us excessive backstory, then ROGUE ONE fills in more gaps between those hollow spaces. Disney have already been mining the fertile territory between the trilogies with the animated series Rebels, and this leads us to the central problem with Edwards’ playground. The ultimate end point is fixed, so there’s an in-built limit to the stakes and consequences. There’s an entire sequence where the Rogues first attempt to rescue Galen, for example, and the status quo does not really change despite multiple explosions by the end of those scenes.
It would be unfair, on the other hand, to label ROGUE ONE as merely flashy and inconsequential. The final act of the film is as operatic and gripping as any Star Wars film, and becomes one of the most beautiful entries in the franchise to look at as well. Following the basic structure of previous films, with the final heist an analogue for the iconic Trench Run or the attack on the Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens, nothing about Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay attempts to break the mould. Shot in a beautiful tropical location, it’s Star Wars with the lights turned on, even if it looks like a holiday resort in Dubai.
The digital wizardry extends to the casting as well. The much talked-about resurrection of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin may be ethically questionable, and narratively unnecessary, but it mostly avoids the uncanny valley and opens up a frightening number of possibilities for future prequels. Jones is a terrific lead, embodying the fiery rebellion that Leia and Rey carried before (or is it after?) her. It’s just a shame that rest of her rogues – consisting of a underused Donnie Yen and an occasionally incomprehensible Diego Luna – are mostly perfunctory and squandered. Only the droid K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, emerges as a memorable character.
So ROGUE ONE is not so much “A Star Wars Story” as it is an action story that could have been told in any subgenre, a path that may water down the franchise to something disposable. In some ways, ROGUE ONE is a feature length explanation for the critical design flaw in the Empire’s most flashy weapon. It’s also hard to escape the feeling that the film is a montage of self-referential winks to the camera (Hey look! It’s some scum and villainy!), with cameos and inside baseballs that don’t move the plot forward. They even create a new strain of Stormtrooper, this time with questionable brown pants, which seems to be geared solely towards merchandising. Nevertheless, while it is told in an incredibly conventional way, ROGUE ONE remains an entertaining piece of extended “official fan-fiction.”