Officially positioned as a stand-alone tale, Rogue One nevertheless accomplishes a nifty thing within the official Star Wars movie canon. The picture fits snugly into the space between the end of the third Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith, and the beginning of A New Hope, the first film in the franchise. So if you've ever wondered where Princess Leia got those Death Star plans from, well, here you go. Hope I'm not spoiling anything.
The movie brings together a number of fine actors—Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, among others. Unfortunately, it brings them together in this movie, which offers little opportunity for them to flesh out their roles, to draw us to them. The picture has no personality. There are no high spirits, no lovable character quirks or easygoing byplay of the vintage Han-and-Leia or Han-and-Chewy variety. And what with the sometimes gloomy visual design, the movie's not a lot of fun.
Once again we're in a faraway galaxy in which the forces of the Empire are oppressing everybody and the plucky members of the Rebel Alliance are fighting back, although with dwindling determination. There's talk of the Empire working on some sort of super-weapon—the celebrated Death Star, of course—and we're told that it's being designed, under duress, by a tech mastermind named Galen Erso. Galen's daughter, a young woman of vague feistiness named Jyn (Jones) is recruited by the Rebels to, as we eventually learn, find her dad's Death Star plans. (This part of the plot is aimed at solving a conceptual flaw that has bedeviled the Death Star ever since we first saw it, back in 1977. But I'll say no more.)
Jyn quickly finds herself in charge of a team. There's her designated squeeze Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel soldier, who might be more interesting if Luna and Jones had some romantic chemistry, which they don't. (And they aren't granted even the most chaste of cuddly moments until the very end of the picture.) Then there's Chirrut Îmwe (Hong Kong martial-arts star Donnie Yen), a sort of blind Zen archer character who is an adept of the Force and can blow away Bakelite-plated stormtroopers literally without even looking. Chirrut also has a hulking buddy named Baze Malbus (Chinese film star Jiang Wen), likewise a butt-kicker, but of humbler, or at least more inscrutable, talents. Also pretty hazy is Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), a defected Empire pilot who's now gone over to the Light Side (or something like that).
Fortunately, this disparate little group is held together by K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a sort of pre-C-3PO droid, complete with fussy Brit accent, who gets most of the best lines provided by screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. (Jyn is touched when K-2SO tells her, "I'll be there for you." But then he adds, "The captain said I had to.") Tudyk often seems to be having more fun than anyone else in the movie.
Like anyone, I'm always happy to re-encounter doomy Darth Vader (not least because he always brings with him the voice of James Earl Jones). But I don't think it should take quite so long (134 minutes) for these Rebels to lay hands on the Death Star plans. And I wish the scenery along the way weren't so entirely unsurprising. There's the usual planet travelogue, from Wobani to Yavin 4 to Scarif —the latter resembling a Caribbean vacation getaway (it's actually located in the azure waters of the Maldives). And there's the usual complement of froggy space creatures, and the usual overabundance of very video-game-y CGI. Once again the skies are filled with X-wings and TIE Fighters and their attendant explosions, while towering Walkers clomp around below.
Worse than the movie's lack of fresh excitement is the return of a character from the first Star Wars film: Grand Moff Tarkin. You'll recall that Tarkin was the commander of the Death Star, and that he was played by the English horror star Peter Cushing. You may also be aware that Cushing died in 1994. And yet here he is, digitally resurrected: walking, talking, scowling—a creepily reanimated corpse blithely degrading a much-loved actor. Clearly there are worse things than death: this is one of them.
Director Gareth Edwards (the 2014 Godzilla) knows how to stage action, and he stages a lot of it here. He definitely keeps the picture moving. It's just not going anywhere new.