Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ****

"Rogue One" is a phenomenal return to form for "Star Wars," taking all the best parts of "The Force Awakens" and injecting originality and grittiness to create something that works well as a standalone film and a part of the larger movie universe.

Is it worth $10? Yes!

Star Wars fans, there is a new hope! For those who didn’t feel the Force in “The Force Awakens,” perhaps because of recycled plot threads and veiled character identities, “Rogue One” swoops in with a straight-forward but original story of an event that viewers have known about for forty years: the Rebels stealing the plans for the Death Star. This is an idea that is mentioned in 1977’s “Star Wars: A New Hope” but not fully explained, which served that film just fine.

Now let’s be honest: This is not the story that fans were most eager to hear about.  It was not a story that needed to be committed to film. But let’s thank the Maker that it was. “Rogue One” is an original, thrilling, dark, and funny masterpiece of Star Wars canon.

Gone is the opening crawl. Gone is John Williams’ iconic score. And gone are the parameters that have held Star Wars films back over the last decade and a half. Director Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”) is able to inject even more life into the recently revitalized franchise by veering away from the tired tale of the Skywalker clan and focusing on side characters, new and old, and giving them a chance to leave their mark on the galaxy.

“Rogue One” follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father is the lead scientist involved in creating the Death Star. Coerced into service by General Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) secretly installs a kill switch into the Death Star that the Rebels might be able to exploit in order to doom the super weapon. Jyn and her band of Rebel allies race across the galaxy to retrieve these plans in order to allow the Rebellion a chance to survive.

The entire cast turns in a strong performance, but Jones and Donnie Yen, who portrays blind Chirrut Imwe, are the stand outs. Whereas the “Force Awakens” relies on the fact the leads will be further developed over the next two installments, “Rogue One” doesn’t hold any secrets as to its characters’ identities or motivations and gives each member of the ensemble a chance to shine within the standalone story.

The film is also much darker than those that came before, invoking a bit of the fear felt in “The Empire Strikes Back” and amplifying it to a level not seen before. For the first time, we get a real feel of what life is like under the Empire. The oppression, the fear, and the resignation of citizens and Rebels alike help paint the galaxy as a place in need of a Rebellion. However, the filmmakers find a good balance of humor as well. It is not such a gloom present that it would make the characters not strive for a better future. In that humor is where hope is born. New droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) is one of the main providers of levity, much as C-3PO had been in the past.

Visually, the film is stunning. Edwards is able to make use of light in a way that is akin to an artist painting on a canvas. The light and the dark compete for dominance throughout, in terms of lighting and character design, illustrating how not even the “good” guys are entirely good.  The battle scenes are also masterfully choreographed, showcasing the grittiness of guerilla warfare. More so than perhaps any of the other films, “Rogue One” earns the moniker “Wars” within “Star Wars.”

The score, however, is the only detractor in an otherwise excellent film. That’s not to say that Michael Giacchino’s score is bad; it just doesn’t live up to Williams’ legacy. There are no stand-out themes that immediately call to mind a specific character or image such as “Binary Sunset,” “The Imperial March,” or “Duel of the Fates” are able to invoke. That said, enough familiar themes are woven into the new score to draw this film into the overall franchise without it simply being a rehash.

Ultimately, “Rogue One” is a fantastic standalone film that perfectly fits into the existing “Star Wars” canon. It is able to inject fresh material and a new perspective into the mythos of the Star Wars universe. Edwards artfully highlights the horrors of war and even manages to retcon one of the biggest plot holes within the original “Star Wars” films. The almost entirely new cast turn in strong individual performances that help propel the film along. While Williams’ score will surely be missed, the rest of the film still has the distinct feel of a “Star Wars” film and one that may well rank as a new favorite on the level of “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Did you know?
James Luceno’s new novel “Catalyst” almost immediately leads into “Rogue One.” It is not necessary to enjoy the film but enhances the overall effect.

Josh Walbert is an entertainment guru with a passion for film and television. He lives south of Orlando, FL, with his girlfriend, and relatively extensive DVD/Blu-Ray collection.

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