Rogue One is comfort food for Star Wars fans. It offers an array of newly-minted characters played by an appealing, multicultural cast and follows a tried-and-true storytelling formula. If you’re not a Star Wars junkie you needn’t worry about having to take an entrance exam to follow the narrative, which is positioned as a prequel to George Lucas’ groundbreaking 1977 movie Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (or, as we called it back then, Star Wars).
Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, whose brilliant father (Mads Mikkelsen) is forced to abandon her after his attempt to “retire” from the Empire backfires. Having to fend for herself as a youngster has made her quick-witted but wary, so she is loath to trust anyone, even a daring adventurer (Diego Luna) who claims to be on her side, working for the Rebellion. Luna’s sidekick is a droid named K-2SO (voiced by the versatile Alan Tudyk) whose arch, amusing dialogue provides welcome comedic relief throughout the film. Their rebel band is fleshed out by Riz Ahmed, as a daring pilot, Jiang Wen as a kind of hit-man, and celebrated Hong Kong action star (and martial artist) Donnie Yen as a sightless warrior who knows the Force is with him.
Director Gareth Edwards and his team have loaded the film with lively, exciting action sequences. The visual effects are photorealistic, a quantum leap from where Lucas started this journey some forty years ago. Everything seems tangible and real, from the surface of a planet to an explosion in space.
Michael Giacchino’s score is well-suited to the adventure and draws on John Williams’ original themes at appropriate moments.
The story is credited to John Knoll and Gary Whitta, while the screenplay bears two A-list names, Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Michael Clayton). It’s impossible to know who actually wrote what in the finished piece but with this pedigree one might expect a less formulaic picture.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with sticking to a formula when it works. This one does, for the most part, but Ben Mendelsohn’s imperious villainy is strictly by the book and uninspired. The only real elements of surprise involve sidelong references to the Star Wars universe (and characters) we know and recognize.
What intrigued me most was seeing a famous actor reincarnated. Peter Cushing, who played Grand Moff Tarkin in Episode IV, passed away in 1994. He’s has been resurrected here through the magic of CGI, and I found watching his scenes highly disconcerting—a problem that likely won’t bother younger audiences who may not be familiar with Cushing or his long career.
Rogue One might be summed up as Star Wars Lite. I don’t think it will resonate the way the original trilogy did or command the long-term attention of J.J. Abrams’ recent reboot…but it does have broad audience appeal and that’s what matters at this moment.