At this time last year, fans of the Star Wars franchise were drooling at the notion of The Force Awakens finally hitting theaters. It predictably did great at the box office, although critical and fan reception varied. Some found it to be a masterful journey of nostalgia, while others criticized the fact that the film felt more like a remake than a sequel. With the promise of a separate set of features that take us back to an earlier time in this universe, audiences will be getting their annual dose of the series. While Rogue One works more as a standalone entry, it still spends a bit too much energy trying to deliver upon fan service.
After the news has spread of the Death Star's creation, the Rebellion must act quickly. They find an unlikely hero in Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who teams up with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to infiltrate the enemy's territory. They must steal the plans for this planet killer and transmit them to the Rebellion before it's too late. This is the story that sets up the epic saga to follow.
While Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought back several of the characters that we have known and loved for decades, Rogue One's lead characters are brand new. Jyn falls in line with badass female heroes, such as Rey. Younger audiences will surely get a lot out of her portrayal as a powerful fighter, who never falls in the shadow of her male counterpart. However, her narrative is primarily introduced in order to explain the Death Star's fatal flaw a bit deeper. She begins to feel a bit more like a plot device than a role that we come to have a meaningful connection with. Where Rey is charming and consistently likable, Jyn often feels a bit too one-dimensional. Meanwhile, Cassian is as bland as action heroes come. Fortunately, the inevitable romance is a bit more subtle than we've come to expect from the franchise, but neither one of these roles are developed well enough to make them memorable.
If you enjoyed the nostalgic overload of last year's entry to the universe, then you'll surely be thrilled with Rogue One's constant catering to the fans. There are a few cameo appearances and mentions made of favorite characters. While some of them are fun additions, others feel out of place. Nevertheless, writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are successful in expanding our knowledge of this time period, while maintaining an even sense of tone. The comedic relief that we've all come to expect from these films is entirely effective from K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). Most of his jokes land quite nicely, and break up scenes that could have been a bit stale otherwise. Despite the fact that K-2SO is a robot with no real backstory, he generates the most genuine connection with the audience that the film is able to muster.
The third act is what will surely leave the greatest impact on the audience. Despite the fact that we know how this story ends before walking into the theater, Rogue One commands our attention with its exciting action sequences. The climax features a long series of different fighting scenes that keep the flow feeling fresh. Aerial combat, martial arts, shoot-outs, and more are featured throughout the finale. While it makes sense in the context of the plot, the absence of lightsaber battles is noticeable. The best scenes in the film feature the return of Darth Vader, although these moments are few and far between. Fortunately, we're treated to antagonist Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who manages to be a captivating villain, although it's likely that this comes more from the performance than the role itself.
Another Star Wars narrative means another new cast bringing this world to the silver screen. Felicity Jones does what she can with Jyn, although there really isn't much dimension to the character. Diego Luna is incredibly dull as Cassian, as he fails to capitalize upon emotional moments that Jones tries to deliver. Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk bring a lot of fun to the picture as Chirrut Imwe and K-2SO, respectively. Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn commands the screen each time he appears in the film. Even despite the film's shortcomings, this is a good cast that is quite effective, with the exception of Luna.
Gareth Edwards has brought us Monsters and the 2014 entry of Godzilla, which both explore the differences in scale. His direction in Rogue One is quite impressive. He continues his use of scale, especially in the aerial combat sequences. Whether we're in the spaceships or on various planets, the film consistently brings us an array of beautiful environments and set design. The action scenes are successfully conveyed throughout without the use of too many quick cuts. This will surely receive an array of award nominations for its technical achievements, as audiences are brought yet another gorgeous look into this universe.
Despite its own issues, Edwards' Star Wars entry is slightly better than The Force Awakens. While it still relies a bit too heavily on nostalgia, Rogue One is a bit more successful as a standalone film. The story is fairly thin and the human characters should be much more compelling than they are, although the feature's use of K-2SO and his comedic relief are a clear strong point. If you're a fan of the franchise, you're sure to find a lot to enjoy about this entry. However, those who aren't quite as fond of the space adventure movies may still find enough to enjoy here to make it worth checking out. Rogue One's final space battle alone makes it worth the price of admission. Recommended.