An Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) has defected with news of a new super weapon called The Death Star — good name. The rebellion needs the information the pilot has as well as to stop the lead weapons-maker (Mads Mikkelsen), so they free Jyn (Felicity Jones), the weapons-maker’s daughter, from imperial custody and send her with an assassin (Diego Luna) and a cynical, reprogrammed Imperial Droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk) to get the pilot and deal with her father. This leads to the three of them, along with the pilot, a force monk (Donnie Yen) and his gun-totting friend (Wen Jiang), and a band of reprobates, to make their own plans to steal The Death Star blueprints.
Star Wars was a Western (or Samurai epic) in space. This is war. Gone are black and white, and simple heroes. In comes hard choices, violence, pain, and real sacrifice, and it makes for the most satisfying Star Wars film since 1977. Rogue One’s direct kin are The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and The Guns of Navarone, with behind-enemy-lines skirmishes and a few actions that would keep our protagonists out of polite society. We know from the start that the ensemble will succeed in their mission. The question is the cost.
The narrative stumbles in the first half, with time wasted on needless travel logs and meeting characters of no importance, while we are distracted by obvious call-backs to earlier films. It takes a while for Rogue One to figure out what kind of film it is, even giving us a rousing “Independence Day” speech from Jyn which would have fit in The Force Awakens but feels fake and shoehorned in here, but once our rogues set out on their mission, it all hums. The action is everything I could ask for and each of the main characters is given a moment without it ever becoming absurd or sentimental. Sure we get one overly coincidental meeting (the main bad guy just happens to decide it is a good time to stop by the base and figures personal confrontation is better then being the commander that he is…oh well) but it is a little flaw in a truly exciting sequence. Far too often in modern action films there are no stakes in the battles. Not here. It had me emotionally and I cared far more in the end about these non-Jedi soldiers, doing what the best soldiers must do, then I have for any of the numerous super-people of the last decade. The conclusion does not disappoint.
It is also worth noting that this is the most diverse cast in any genre film, ever, with East Asians, a South Asian, a Latino, and…well, a robot, working under a woman. And what do you know—having everyone not be White guys hasn’t seemed to hurt ticket sales. Hmmm. Wonder if there is a lesson there.
There are a few returning characters but they don’t take center stage and generally the cameos are good. Darth Vader is once again someone to fear and I suspect that alone will win over any doubting Star Wars fans. There are two clear cases when some CG effects are not quite what they should be, but they are close enough.
This isn’t the film to bring the magic back to the Star Wars franchise, but it is the one to bring back meaning and emotion, and that’s better.