Nobody would have much thought that a movie with its ending set in stone for almost a half-century would contain the pulsating thrills of an old-fashioned heist thriller.
And yet here’s “Rogue One,” the long-awaited “Star Wars” prequel that assuredly continues the revamped invigoration of the franchise started by last year’s astounding “The Force Awakens.” Taking place in the moments leading up to the downfall of the planet destroying Death Star in ’77’s “A New Hope,” it’s the finest movie formed on the basis of a couple sentences ever made.
Though never outdoing the movie J.J. Abrams and all his friends made in 2015 — its purpose seems more indebted to universe expansion than to saga redefinition — it’s a killer actioner all the same. It even has its very own Luke Skywalker, this time the starry eyed Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of research scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen). Rescued and mentored by extremist Rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) in her youth following the massacre of her family at the hands of Imperial leaders, she’s been raised a warrior, a trooper to overcome her tragic past.
So perhaps she’s essentially always been training for the task to define her in adulthood. Which is, to her disbelief, the defeating of the Death Star, a goliath of an unfinished space station. Upon completion, the base will be capable of wiping out entire worlds all thanks to her father, who is (a) not dead and (b) the architect behind it all. With the Rebel party figuring she’s best suited to take on the role of revolutionary leader due to her close proximity to the man who’s singlehandedly produced the most dangerous weapon in the galaxy, Jyn goes for broke and aligns herself with Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Force loving mercenaries Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen), and Imperial betraying pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). But with Darth Vader’s (James Earl Jones) right-hand man Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) undermining plenty of their sly moves, uncertain is how the endgame to their fierce planning will look.
Until you remember how “A New Hope” began, then maybe some of “Rogue One’s” unpredictability is undercut. (Especially so by the film’s last image.) But here, whether the movie’s new or game-changing isn’t so much the first thing on our minds: like it went with “The Force Awakens,” nostalgia is key, and the film’s rugged spirit fortunately retains Abrams’s wisely traditionalist approach. As we live in a culture that prefers things at least have some things in common with the perceived to be good old days, that’s plenty fine, unless remodeling is what you’re after.
Once again, casting is as much a weapon as the ones wielded within the film’s epic sphere. Jones, dynamite, has the gallantry of Pam Grier and the down-and-dirty readiness of Angelina Jolie, her presence the movie’s emotional cement. Likewise are her quasi-sidekicks Luna, Wen, and Ahmed integral to “Rogue One’s” underdog inclinations, but it’s Mendelsohn, chillingly heartless, and Yen, who fuses his martial arts background to the film’s core with stunning precision, that principally add to the feature’s already feisty personality.
That it’s unafraid to persuade us to love its characters to off many of them in the face of social change only contributes to its appealing maverick state of mind — flashes of “The Great Escape” (1963) and “Papillon” (1973) arrive when the aspirations of the many of the characters doesn’t always provide them with ultimate success. And that darkened reality reminds us why the franchise, four decades in, has lasted so long: challenging itself, proving itself to be deeper than your typical blockbuster fluff, has never been far from any of its makers’ minds. I’m not so sure it’s exactly what many critics are proclaiming it to be — “the best ‘Star Wars’ movie since ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’” says The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato — but with its thrills so gracefully constructed (its finale is a goosebumps inducing smash) and its space opera grandioseness still as awesome as ever, it’s a people pleaser simultaneously well worth the wait and a restarter of the anticipation felt for next year’s “Episode VIII.”