3 stars (out of 4)
Which of the following statements about the Star Wars franchise is most applicable to you?
A. I’m a well-versed geek and may or may not own rare memorabilia and/or a Princess Leia costume.
B. I’ve seen all the Episodes but I’m not going to win a trivia contest anytime soon.
C. Eh, it’s fine. I don’t really get the appeal. Also, I'm concerned Nick won't be a good Bachelor.
The answer has a direct correlation to the enjoyment factor of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The first self-contained film in the beloved saga, it’s the leanest and meanest trip yet to that galaxy far, far away. Hard-core fans who thought 2015’s Episode VII was a dumbed-down rehash will surely bask in a thrilling, action-packed film that refuses to spoon-feed information. That’s the same reason why the casual adult moviegoer might be disengaged. Kids? Thanks to a sophisticated narrative, there’s going to be a lot of explaining to do beyond the usual who's-who rundown. They won’t find a cuddly BB-8, Ewok or Jar Jar Binks to latch on to, either. (#Forthebest.)
Simply put, this installment emphasizes the “War” in Star Wars.
First sign this isn’t a typical Star Wars flick: No opening explanatory crawl up to the top of the screen. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) assumes every paying customer already knows the tale is set some years after 2005’s Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, and immediately before 1977’s Episode IV, A New Hope. (If that sentence makes no sense, just stop reading this review. There’s no hope!) The red-lightsaber-wielding Darth Vader is still lording over the Empire. The Rebel Alliance is still fighting for freedom. And rebellions, as one character puts it, are "built on hope.”
Better get your bearings in a hurry because here comes the heroine, Jyn Erso (Oscar nominee Felicity Jones in an incredibly fearless performance). When she was a teen, Jyn managed to escape as Imperial director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) kidnapped her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) and her mother. Fifteen years later, she’s a headstrong soldier with a criminal record. She’s a badass, all right — no wonder she's recruited for an A-list mission involving a new weapon of mass destruction … called the Death Star. Considering Jyn is a never-before-seen character, this facet of her origin story should have been more gripping. A few welcome, familiar faces can’t mask the disjointed, hard-to-comprehend structure in the first act.
The drama intensifies once the mission gets under way. Jyn learns her dad programmed the Death Star, but he secretly planted a flaw in it. If she can somehow infiltrate the Empire and get her hands on the plans, the superweapon can be obliterated. (This is where a recent viewing of the original Star Wars comes in handy.) Helping her out is a scrappy — and fairly forgettable — bunch of misfits: a cool-headed rebel intelligence officer (Diego Luna); a tech-whiz pilot (Riz Ahmed); a blind warrior (Donnie Yen); an assassin (Jiang Wen); and another catty droid with a British accent, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). (“I find that answer vague and unconvincing!” he sniffs.) Together, they figure out how to fight their way past the flurry of Stormtroopers. Edwards shows no mercy in portraying ruthless violence. No blood but countless bone-crunching deaths.
As is the case with most good vs. evil movies, a standout villain is the difference maker. This one comes equipped with a legendary résumé of nefariousness. “Lord Vader,” the emotionally complex father of Luke and Leia, heavy-breathes life into the proceedings from the moment he saunters into the room. No matter that sickly human Anakin Skywalker is behind the mask — with James Earl Jones once again providing his iconic deep basso voice, the character is as menacing as ever. (The audience inside the theater at the world premiere cheered wildly when he started speaking, rendering his first line of dialogue inaudible.) Even when Vader turns his back, he can make a standard baddie like Mendelsohn’s weapons expert wither in agony. There's still something mesmerizing about the tormented man in black.
Quibbles aside, it's important to appreciate the difficulty in successfully pulling off a prequel of this magnitude. The epic's own creator, George Lucas, was a woeful 0 for 3 in his attempts. One Christmas ago, J.J. Abrams attempted to course-correct with a sequel that became the biggest box office hit of all time. And while it was certainly the result of 30 years of anticipation, don’t underestimate the McDonald’s factor — Abrams knew exactly how to cater to the hungry masses.
This spinoff isn’t nearly as accessible and yet it’s ultimately more rewarding. The fraught Big Moments are as emotionally resonant as they are surprising. There’s no time for cutesy inside jokes when the future of the galaxy is at stake and the clock is ticking. That’s why in the grand scheme of the Star Wars universe, "Episode 3.5" will go down as a chief reason why fanatics hold the franchise so close to their hearts. Best of all, the feeling is not at all Forced.
(Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens Friday, December 16.)
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