Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelson, Forrest Whittaker, and the voices of Alan Tudyk and James Earl Jones
Rated PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action
When George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, they announced that they would release a new "Star Wars" film each year, alternating between the main storyline and stand-alone features. The first installment was last year's "Episode VII," which I liked better than many critics and audiences. The newest one is a mid-qual named "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," taking place immediately before the one that started it all.
Galen Erso (Mikkelson) is preparing for the inevitable. When it happens, his wife is murdered and he sends his daughter Jyn to be with a friend named Saw Gererra (Whitaker). The reason for the violence is that the Empire desperately needs his help. You see, Galen was tasked with creating the Death Star, but fled before it was completed.
Twenty years later, Jyn (Jones) has now grown up and is fending for herself. She doesn't support the Empire or the Rebellion, but the latter has captured her and they force her to complete a mission from them. A pilot for the Empire, Cassian Endor (Ahmed) has, under orders from Galen, defected with news of the Death Star's creation. The Rebellion needs her to find her father and verify that Cassian's words are true. If she accomplishes this task, then she can have her freedom.
The film's biggest problems are arguably the most important part of the story: the plot and the characters. The story is thin and not very interesting. In all honesty, it feels more appropriate for a TV miniseries than a $200 million dollar film. It's not the concept but the presentation. The story feels too constrained, lacking the breadth and detail of Lucas's work. This problem affected "Episode VII" to a lesser extent. The characters are no better, achieving little more than one dimension. They've attempted to plug the holes with good actors, but they're all miscast, which doesn't help the situation.
Felicity Jones is solid as Jyn, demonstrating fire and talent but not the charisma. She can't command the screen like a movie star. It's not a knock against her, it's just how it is (for all his faults, Hayden Christensen had the "it" factor). Diego Luna is an even more bizarre casting choice. Luna is a fine actor (see "Y tu Mama Tambien" or "Milk" for examples of his talents), but he fits into the "Star Wars" universe like a square peg in a round hole. Ditto for Ben Mendelsohn; fine actor but doesn't fit. The only characters that work are martial arts star Donnie Yen as a blind man with serious fighting skills and Alan Tudyk as the obligatory droid (dubbed K-2SO). They're supporting characters, but they're more interesting than the main cast.
What saves the film are the action scenes. They work wonderfully; the final battle particularly so. Director Gareth Edwards can't match Lucas's artistry, but he comes close. Like Abrams, he seems afraid to push the "opera" in "space opera." He holds back, and makes things too gritty. The cost is the hope and cheer that, even in its darkest moments, the original series had.
Mention must be made about the special effects. Oh sure, the space battles, cities and aliens are absolutely sensational, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the special effects needed to bring Peter Cushing back to life and de-age a certain thespian. I won't say who it is, but anyone who knows where this fits into the timeline of the series will be able to guess it (and no it's not Darth Vader. He shows up for quite a few scenes, voiced once again by James Earl Jones). Cushing died in 1994, but he shows up in the flesh for a significant role. It was actually British actor Guy Henry and some CGI, but I thought it was the same technique they used to bring Laurence Olivier back to life for "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." Kudos to the special effects department; they had me fooled. If only the same thing could be said about the 3D...
"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is closer to a misfire than a complete winner, but I'm giving it a solid 3/4 for the action scenes. And besides, it's "Star Wars." Everyone and their aunt is going to see it regardless of what I say. And how can I blame them? Who can turn down "Star Wars," even if it is subpar?