- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.” — From the opening crawl to “Star Wars: A New Hope”
This is pretty much all you need to know going into the totally excellent “Rogue One,” the first of the proposed series of “Star Wars” anthology films that will alternate with films in the main storyline. Next year comes “Episode VIII,” then the Han Solo movie in 2018, etc.
Let’s be honest: We all maybe expected a little too much from last year’s “The Force Awakens,” the much-anticipated revival of the main storyline. The emotional obligations that movie had were just astronomical, more than any story could possibly live up to. And, in hindsight, as awesome as Rey and Finn are, perhaps some of us overlooked obvious flaws (sun-powered superweapon built into a planet, I am looking at you) because we were a little too excited to see the Millennium Falcon back in action.
“Rogue One” has no such obligations.
Directed by Gareth “Godzilla” Edwards and written by Hollywood script ninjas Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, “Rogue One” distinguishes itself immediately from every other “Star Wars” movie. There is no opening crawl; indeed, the words “Star Wars” don’t even appear with the title.
We are simply dropped into the action as a Star Destroyer approaches a planet (of course, we see the enormous image fill the screen — you can’t get rid of everything.)
A small girl runs through a field — there are still plenty of vast, imagination-firing vistas, a la Tatooine, in “Rogue One” — as an Imperial shuttle flies overhead and lands. The girl runs to her parents, who almost panic.
The shuttle holds one Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, aka that guy you keep thinking is Hugh Laurie but isn’t). Clad in Imperial whites and cloak and accompanied by Stormtroopers, everything about Krennic seems the very model of executive-level baddie.
He is here for Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, because there are few actors whose very presence screams “possibly murderous moral ambiguity” as loudly). Erso is required to finish work on the Empire’s newest ultimate weapon. He resists, it goes poorly, and his daughter, young Jyn, escapes.
Fifteen years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones), a petty criminal for some time now, is busted out of Imperial jail by some Rebels who have learned who her father is. The group is led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna in an appropriately awesome jacket), and Jyn joins the Rebellion almost against her will.
First up is getting Jyn in contact with fanatical Rebel veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, who really, really loves weird accents). Gerrera is holed up on Jedha, a planet holy to those who believe in the Force, the capital of which has become a war zone (not to mention a religious city occupied by a secular, fascist army).
And that’s just the beginning of a planet-hopping space opera, one that’s part World War II sabotage movie a la “Guns of Navarone” and part Akira Kurosawa adventure.
War flick and Asian cinema are, of course, two of the elements that went into George Lucas’ conceptual gumbo for “Star Wars,” and Edwards uses these influences in new ways. Stormtroopers storm a beach, Normandy-style. The blind, Force-worshipping warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Chinese martial arts action star Donnie Yen) and his partner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), he of the blaster machine gun, make a pair straight out of Hong Kong heroic bloodshed pictures.
For their part, Jones and Luna have decent, nonromantic chemistry. He has been part of the Rebellion his whole life; she is the brash newcomer whose dedication to the cause is Han Solo-level suspect.
You thought everything looked shabby in “A New Hope”? Here, the greasy-faced Rebels look unwashed and exhausted, much like rebels anywhere. Gerrera is more machine than man, and his look, along with a very “Blade Runner” scene in a city, gives bits of “Rogue One” a cyberpunk feel. This is by far the grittiest entry in the “Star Wars” canon; those with small children who want to see it are reminded that this is a story about war, and those rarely have happy endings.
Which is to say that Edwards does his level best to get the balance right between new ideas and obligatory callbacks.The Stormtroopers still have some of the worst armor in the galaxy. All of the costumes, many of which had to read on screen exactly like outfits in “A New Hope,” look fantastic.
A fan-favorite character is CGI’ed right into the Death Star (which means a dive into the uncanny valley like it’s Beggar’s Canyon back home). Darth Vader, voiced once again by James Earl Jones, called in as the Empire’s Luca Brasi, has never seemed more demonic or acted more violently.
And yes, there’s a droid named K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) there for comic relief. But since he’s a reprogrammed Imperial droid, he’s a mite more hostile than C-3PO. The moment someone starts to say the series’ signature line, other characters shout him down, as if it’s bad luck.
Which it sort of is. At its best, “Rogue One” is scrappy and epic in equal measure, aware of the potential to be glorified fan fiction and using exactly what it needs from the “Star Wars” mythology to create a vibrant, stand-alone adventure. The Force is with it.