How much do you want a new “Star Wars”? When J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” opened to enormous fanfare last December, it felt like watching a beloved rock band making its comeback tour after a long hiatus. Sure, the original members couldn’t quite muster the same energy and half of them seemed to have been replaced by session musicians, but the tunes still sounded pretty good.
That film’s follow-up isn’t due until next December, but in the meantime we’ve got Gareth Edwards’ surprisingly dour “Rogue One.” Billed as “A ‘Star Wars’ Story,” as opposed to an episode of the main saga, it’s a standalone movie that plays more like an extended bit of fan service, treating the myths and minutiae of the “Star Wars” universe with equal reverence.
Set in the days immediately before the original “Star Wars” (aka “Episode IV: A New Hope”), it focuses on a rebel mission to steal the plans of the Death Star, the planet-zapping weapon that was ultimately destroyed by Luke Skywalker. That this bit of narrative marginalia has been spun off into its own film could be seen as enterprising or shameless, depending on how generous you’re feeling.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||134 mins|
“Rogue One” isn’t taking any chances: It’s desperate to ensure a seamless transition with “Episode IV,” as if this constitutes a meaningful end in itself. Actors from the 1977 film are digitally inserted into the proceedings, most creepily with a computer-generated avatar of the late Peter Cushing, who played the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin.
This struck me as an extraordinary lapse of taste, but it’s characteristic of the cynicism that pervades the movie. There’s no urgency to “Rogue One.” It never makes a convincing case for its necessity that isn’t financial.
For the most part, this is a film about the little people: the serfs and nerf herders who can only dream of meeting a Jedi. The heroine, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is the daughter of the Death Star’s designer; her antagonist, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), is the weapon’s project manager.
Forget lightsaber duels: At one point, we have to watch characters battle valiantly to flip a switch on a power console in order to upload some data, and it’s only marginally less silly than if they were attempting to install Windows 10.
As with his 2014 version of “Godzilla,” Edwards at least manages to bring a convincing weight and texture to this fantasy world. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Stormtroopers look as grimy as they do in “Rogue One,” and there are a few shots — a four-legged AT-AT walker emerging through the smoke of a battlefield, the plume of an explosion rising from a planet’s surface into space — that are almost as electrifying as the monster showdown from “Godzilla.”
Much of the advance press for “Rogue One” focused on the caliber of its ensemble cast, which includes Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen and Donnie Yen. They’re wasted on the material, but some still manage to do good work. I particularly liked Jiang Wen as the tough gunslinger sidekick to Yen’s blind kung fu master, and Riz Ahmed as an Imperial pilot who defects to the rebel cause.
Still, they’re overshadowed by the decision to reanimate Cushing, which portends a brave new era for the franchise. Already, the folks at Disney are probably scanning the scripts of earlier movies, looking for throwaway details they can expand into full-length features.
With a cast of computerized revenants at their disposal, the possibilities are limitless. By 2025, we’ll be watching an origin story about the Mos Eisley Cantina band while waiting for the inevitable “Episode IV” reboot, starring ageless CGI simulacra of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.
You can’t fight the future. On reflection, 2016 probably got the “Star Wars” movie it deserved.
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