At last, the "Star Wars" cinematic universe has expanded, with the successful experiment "Rogue One" (subtitled in the marketing, but not on screen, as "A Star Wars Story"). The first of the so-called "Star Wars" anthology films, "Rogue One" takes place mostly in the year or so before the events of George Lucas' initial 1977 "Star Wars" film ("Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope"), and it is a time of treachery.
"Star Wars" took direct inspiration from the World War II behind-enemy-lines "men on a mission" pictures of Lucas' youth, like 1955's "The Dam Busters" and 1961's "The Guns of Navarone." In more ways than one, "Rogue One" brings us full circle, to where "Star Wars" began. In its murkier moral tone, "Rogue One" perhaps best resembles the next wave of WWII action-suspense pictures of the 1970s (including "Force 10 from Navarone," with none other than Harrison "Han Solo" Ford).
And so this new "Star Wars" picture, directed by Gareth Edwards ("Monsters," "Godzilla"), concerns a scrappy band of heroes and anti-heroes, Rebels on their own behind-enemy-lines missions to resist the Empire. Word is that the Empire -- under the leadership of Darth Vader (again voiced by James Earl Jones), Governor Tarkin (a CGI recreation of Peter Cushing), and Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) -- has begun construction on "a planet killer," the now-infamous Death Star.
The Rebel Alliance recruits Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Imperial science officer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), to reach out to grizzled Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). The Rebels hope that Saw will provide the means to find Galen and thereby learn of the Empire's plans. Jyn doesn't much care about all of that: she'd just like to see her dad again, who was ripped away from her by the Empire in the person of Krennic.
Off she goes, a sister whose multicultural band of brothers comes to include Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); the probability-calculating, reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk); Force-worshipping blind swordsman Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, doing his best space-Zatoichi) and his assassin buddy Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen); and turncoat Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). And at least six familiar faces from earlier "Star Wars" films play small roles or make cameo appearances, just one reason why "Rogue One" will give die-hard "Star Wars" fans multiple orgasms.
Another reason can be found in the "Story by" credit, shared by Gary Whitta ("The Book of Eli") and ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll. Although the screenplay credit belongs to Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") and Tony Gilroy (the "Bourne" films), Knoll's placement is emblematic of the film's true raison d'etre: to give us X-wings dogfighting with TIE fighters, stage laser-gun fights, and bust out everything from an AT-AT to a lightsaber. "Rogue One" runneth over with "Star Wars" spectacle.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, except that the story would work better if it more successfully warmed up the emotional connection to its characters. Jyn Erso feels a bit remote, in spite of her daddy issues and arc of moral awakening. Still, that last point -- and the characters' lack of our knowledge that their mission to steal the Death Star plans cannot fail -- gives the film some weight.
This is a "Star Wars" film that looks to the future while taking us once again to the "long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" past.