Disney has one mission when it comes to its massive “Star Wars” investment -- “stay on target.”
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” shows this Mickey Mouse operation does just that … again. Darker than any previous “Star Wars” tale, “Rogue One” ditches the iconic music, text crawl and the Skywalker clan (mostly).
What’s left? Good versus evil. Pain and sacrifice. Heroes and villains.
Disney refuses to budge on the essential “Star Wars” themes. It’s the reason you’ll be thinking about “Rogue One” while you’re on line to see it again.
The film takes place before the events of “Star Wars: A New Hope.” The ragtag Rebels, scrambling to counter the Empire’s planet-killing space station, hunt the scientist responsible for its creation.
Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) helped build the Death Star under duress, but he won’t be easy to find. That’s why the rebels seek out Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). She’s Galen’s daughter, and she could help them find her pappy. She also has ties to a rebel extremist (Forest Whitaker) who may lead them straight to the scientist.
They’re joined by an odd assortment of heroes, all with their own grudges against the Empire. Together, they must find a way to find the Death Star’s weakness, if it has one, before the rebellion is reduced to rubble.
We know how this all turns out, assuming you’re not in the .0001 percent of the population who skipped “Star Wars.” Those Death Star plans gave us Luke, Leia and Han, not to mention the most potent sci-fi franchise of all time.
Sorry, “Star Trek.”
FAST FAST: “Star Wars” creator George Lucas had designs on a car racing career as a young man. A near-fatal crash forced him to consider other gigs.
It’s ingenious to create an entire story around the Death Star blueprints. That’s hardly where the inspiration stops with “Rogue One.” We’re given a worthy collection of heroes, from a blind warrior (Donnie Yen) to a robot who could displace C3PO in our heart circuits.
Alan Tudyk’s K-S20 is snarkier than any “Star Wars” ‘bot to date. He also delivers more humanity than his flesh and blood peers through the film’s first half. In fact, “Rogue One” doesn’t quite feel like a “Star Wars” film for much of its running time.
Where’s the humor, the sense we’re watching a Saturday morning serial spiffied up for modern times? It’s a calculated risk that mostly pays off. Disney wants to extend this franchise beyond light sabers and backward-talking Jedis.
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The new film lets the universe expand, covering exciting new visuals and a palette not always suitable for young viewers. Director Gareth Edwards (“Monsters,” “Godzilla”) brings energy and vision to the franchise. The saga’s “youth movement” is in full swing.
Disney won’t let go of old friends, and foes, entirely.
We already knew Darth Vader would make a posthumous comeback. He’s not a key player here, but his fight sequence late in the film is guaranteed to deliver chills.
Anakin Skywalker isn’t alone, though.
Digital trickery brings back another face from the “Star Wars” past. You’ll be amazed at how much screen time the character in question gets. It’s a tricky gambit. Yes, the visuals are astounding, but it still feels like a carnival trick.
Sometimes technology works best when you hold something back.
We know how this all turns out, assuming you’re not in the .0001 percent of the population who skipped “Star Wars.”
The film’s first half isn’t a clear-eyed as we hope. We’re asked to bond with a crush of new characters, and the screenplay isn’t always on our side. Yen’s warrior is an instant hit, from his quirky demeanor to his surreal fighting cops. Does the Force truly flow within him?
Yen is no Olivier, but he comes alive in “Rogue One” in wonderful ways. The same isn’t true for Diego Luna, for better or worse our Han Solo stand in. The charisma deficit is considerable between the two heroes. Luckily, Luna’s chemistry with Jones sharpens just when it matters the most.
Jones, meanwhile, carries the heroine torch without succumbing to overkill. She’s ferocious but measured, a hero asked to deliver a troop-rallying speech every 20 minutes. She’s not mowing down Stormtroopers nor spitting out any “empowering” bromides. Her bond with her father is given too little screen time, but she makes the most of it.
One of the film’s bigger mistakes is not focusing on a single villain. Sure, Vader lurks in the background even when he’s not on screen. But why hire the great Ben Mendelsohn without giving him a role for the ages? His Director character should have done more, said more. Instead, he’s lost in the crowd at times, fumbling to take credit for the Empire’s new toy.
It’s one place where the film’s fealty to “Star Wars” lore hurts the production.
There’s been plenty written about the movie’s possible ties to the Trump presidency. Suffice to say anyone making those connections does so without a scrap of proof.
That isn’t to say the current culture wars aren’t in play. The film’s aggressive diversity is hard to miss, as is the fact that some of the X-Wing fighter pilots hit the Ladies Room after a successful mission.
What resonates more than any other theme in “Rogue One” is the notion of sacrifice. Not every hero will make it out alive. The Empire is evil and must be destroyed. We’ll do some hand wringing at a later date.
Victory will take the lives of many good people. Success is never guaranteed. “Never tell us the odds” … right?
The stakes for a “Star Wars” saga never seemed so high or personal. Edwards hammers home that point in the third act. It’s all-out war, and the battlefield is littered with good men and women.
It’s that dramatic heft that makes this more than another franchise extender. “Rogue One” earns our cheers and appreciation for its strong moral core.
HiT or Miss: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” proves “The Force Awakens” was no fluke. The Force is back, and you can expect more offshoot features in the years to come. Bring ’em on.