The latest “Star Wars” movie, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” opens with quite a thrill. Unlike other movies in the saga and their opening crawls, this one jumps right into the action.
It’s a sign that you’re headed into a story different from the rest (well, as different as Disney will allow), and that’s exactly what “Rogue One” is. The first-ever standalone “Star Wars” movie, its originality is apparent from the start and continues throughout its two-hour-plus running time.
Set before the events in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the movie follows the Rebels who set out to steal the plans of the newly completed Death Star, which has enough firepower to destroy planets.
But as with all the “Star Wars” movies, there is a more deep-seeded story buried here. For “Rogue One,” it’s main character Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones), the daughter of the architect behind the Death Star, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). An outsider since her father forced her to run away from home as a young girl when the Empire’s director of advanced weapons research, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), ordered Galen to return to finish the Death Star, Jyn has grown to only take care of herself. She ignores the flags of the Empire rising across the galaxy, which you can’t notice, as she says, “if you don’t look up.”
But when the Rebel Alliance tracks her down with the hopes that she can lead them to Galen, who has sent out a message through a cargo pilot who works for him (Riz Ahmed) that there is a flaw in the Death Star he’s created that can destroy it, Jyn realizes her purpose: bringing hope to the Rebels.
“Rogue One” director Gareth Edwards (2014’s “Godzilla”) delivers striking visuals, lots of action, and fun exchanges among the many characters (especially droid K-2SO, who is a scene-stealer), to create a movie that is thrilling, at times dark, but also extremely entertaining regardless of your “Star Wars” knowledge.
Part of that pleasure comes from the one-off nature of the story. Playing like a war movie in which you know most of the characters aren’t going to make it out alive, “Rogue One” is satisfying because everything is laid out in one movie. There’s no waiting a year or two to get questions answered, there is finality (a rarity in today’s blockbusters).
And the cast diversity should also be applauded. Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, and Wen Jiang – all actors of color – play characters who fight alongside Jyn.
But it wouldn’t be a “Star Wars” movie without references to other chapters, and there are plenty in “Rogue One.”
Darth Vader (voiced yet again by James Earl Jones) appears in a few scenes, and one in particular shows him at his most ruthless. Jimmy Smits reprises his role as Bail Organa from the prequels (the guy who raises Princess Leia), who’s vital in the connection between “Rogue One” and “A New Hope.” There’s also an appearance by Grand Moff Tarkin, who is commander of the Death Star in “A New Hope.”
Played in the 1977 film by legendary actor Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, the actor’s face playing Tarkin in “Rogue One” is digitally replaced to look like Cushing. This will likely be the thing most “Star Wars” die-hard fans will argue over once the movie opens worldwide on Friday.
The first time you see Tarkin’s face, it’s a shock because the character clearly looks like CGI. It’s admittedly a distraction and takes you out of the movie a little because you’re paying so much attention to the detail (at least I was, as someone who grew up watching Cushing in “A New Hope”). It was an interesting decision to showcase Tarkin so much in the movie and not keep him to just a few wide shots like in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” (in which actor Wayne Pygram plays the character). It’s an effect Disney has played with in Marvel’s “Ant-Man” (a young Michael Douglas) and “Captain America: Civil War” (young Robert Downey Jr.), but in “Rogue One,” it’s an experiment that might cause a lot of disgruntled reactions.
And those worried about all of those reshoots, especially to strengthen the ending, should take a deep breath. Without giving anything away, the ending – especially the last few minutes – is very, very strong.
“Rogue One” opens in theaters on Friday.