Soon, just as there are plenty of adults who no longer remember a world before The Simpsons, nobody will recall a time when, for good or ill, there was not a new annual Star Wars movie. It’s no longer enough (either to shareholders or to pop culture at large) to expect a new installment of the core saga every few years (let alone every other decade), so with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Disney kicks off a line of one-off adventures. This one, set in-between 2005’s Revenge of the Sith and 1977’s A New Hope, follows a ragtag band of rebels on a likely suicide mission as they attempt to steal the plans for the original Death Star. Avoiding the greater mythmaking of the classic “episodes” in favor of turning Star Wars into a World War II movie-style combat drama, Rogue One is consequently packed with thinly sketched characters whose motivations barely have time to catch up with the film’s complicated but not necessarily complex plot, which is mostly a video-game-ish “go here, do this, get that thing” affair, with of course intergalactic democracy in the balance.
Never less than exciting even if the story and characters are generally on autopilot.
More remarkable are the deadly stakes and the impressively high on-screen body count. This is a relatively violent film, loaded with close quarters fighting and culminating in a massive, nearly 40-minute air/land/space battle that might be some of the most visceral action in the franchise’s history. Director Gareth Edwards shoots everything somewhat docu-verité style, with a lot of handheld, distinctive from the mostly tripod-locked style of the main entries. It’s never less than exciting even if the story and characters are generally on autopilot. Another matter entirely is the mandate of a newly expanding cinematic universe. There are plenty of cute little easter eggs here and winking nods there, but the decision to cram in lengthy cameos from major established characters (sometimes with the use of some state-of-the-art but still thoroughly unconvincing CGI) is a huge distraction reeking of fan service, gumming up the already wonky pace and making needless direct links to already well-documented stories (even if it does return a certain someone to scary status). There’s clearly plenty of room in the Empire for all sorts of stories (and you could do a lot worse than The Guns of the Navarone in a galaxy far, far away), but Rogue One‘s biggest problem is that it doesn’t feel entirely confident in telling a new or different one.