Disney's profiteering from the Star Wars franchise continues apace. The company moved the story's timeline forward last year, with a visually beautiful yet dramatically stultifying Episode VII, directed by J.J. Abrams. The next phase is a spin-off film series, filling in other parts of the saga, beginning with this year's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. If the first installment is any indication, these films will mostly look like Star Wars films but will not slavishly retain all the traditional elements, such as the receding block of text in the opening sequence. This particular film is sort of an Episode IIIb, which provides the background events leading up to the start of Episode IV, where the love of Star Wars began. (Spoilers to follow.)
Our hero is Jyn Erso, played by English actress Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything). She is the daughter of a scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), whom the Empire has forced to build a moon-sized battle station capable of destroying an entire planet. Elements in the Rebellion save her from being sent to an imperial prison, because they hope she can lead them to one of their former allies, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who has become too militant and no longer trusts them. She agrees, on the condition that she will be set free, and sets off with a pilot named Cassian Andor, played by Mexican actor Diego Luna (Frida, Y Tu Mamá También), and a reprogrammed imperial droid named K-2SO, honest to a fault and voiced by Alan Tudyk.
Along the way they pick up a blind Jedi warrior monk, Chirrut Îmwe, played by Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, complete with impressive staff technique (Kung Fu meets The Force); his friend Baze Malbus (Chinese actor Wen Jiang), a man who trusts more in large weapons; and a defecting imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook, played by Riz Ahmed (Jason Bourne), a British actor of Pakistani descent. This Star Wars world is much less Euro-centric than its predecessors.
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Thanks to an unremarkable script crafted by committee (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's screenplay, based on a story credited to John Knoll and Gary Whitta), none of the characters has any real depth. As in The Force Awakens, the droid seems more human and gets bigger laughs, while some of the human characters, thanks to creepy digital technology, are played by living actors covered in dead actors' virtual skins. In both Peter Cushing's sneering Grand Moff Tarkin and the late Carrie Fisher's young Princess Leia, the performances fall somewhere in that "uncanny valley" that can turn a viewer's stomach.
Rogue One is visually just as beautiful and realistic as The Force Awakens, which makes it watchable but then instantly forgettable. English director Gareth Edwards, whose only major credit prior to this film was the 2014 remake of Godzilla, focuses on battle scenes, which thrilled Master Ionarts, without lingering much on any individual human element. Michael Giacchino furnishes a score that is symphonic in scope but is memorable only when it is quoting the famous themes of John Williams. (Williams, for his part, recently told an interviewer that he has never actually watched any of the finished Star Wars films and does not find any of the scores he wrote for the franchise particularly good.)
The good news is that there are more Star Wars movies to watch. Any fan of the franchise will enjoy guessing how the movie will tie up the loose ends to graft itself onto the start of Episode IV. The bad news is that the glory days of Star Wars are gone, likely never to return. What we have instead is another fiefdom of the Disney empire.
This film is currently playing everywhere.