Star Wars has been a cultural landmark for almost forty years, but it took until 2016 to finally get a movie in the franchise that doesn't once utter the name "Skywalker." It's refreshing in that regard, but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first film to spin-off from the main saga, has been hyped as a "standalone" movie, and that couldn't be further from the truth. Rogue One does not and cannot stand alone — it's often paralyzingly dependent on the audience's knowledge of the events of A New Hope. Still, the good moments outweigh the bad, and if nothing else, the film showcases flashes of the potential these spin-off movies have to expand the franchise's universe beyond the actions of its most important family.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a fiery badass who has spent her life hiding her identity. She's the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a famous scientist ripped away from his wife and child by the Empire years earlier and forced to help build the Death Star, a planet-destroying super weapon overseen by the ambitious Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Jyn was raised and trained by an extremist former soldier named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), but her troublemaking ways landed her in a prison transport vehicle. She's quickly rescued by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Captain for the Rebel Alliance who has heard whispers about the Death Star's existence. The Rebels wants to use Jyn's past with Saw as a way to secure a meeting with him, because Saw reportedly has a secret message that reveals a fatal flaw in the Death Star's design. It doesn't take long before Jyn, Cassian, and a mouthy droid named K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) are joined by former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a blind, staff-wielding monk named Chirrut (Donnie Yen), and Chirrut's bruiser of a bodyguard Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), forming the unlikely spine of a movement within the rebellion to steal the Death Star plans and broadcast its weakness before it wipes them all out.
While there are still a handful of space battles to be found here (one of which may contain the whole series' best space battle moment), Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) shoots much of the film's action from a grounded perspective and gives the story a visual style that's appropriate for its scrappy, determined protagonists. There's not a weak link to be found in the main cast (which is by far the most diverse group of actors assembled for a Star Wars movie), and composer Michael Giacchino — the first person other than John Williams to ever score a live-action Star Wars film — does some solid work with the score (keep your ears open for echoes of his Lost music in Krennic's theme).
While much of the film works, there's one massive misfire that grinds it to a halt. The studio is asking that we avoid spoilers, so I won't reveal the specific character to which I'm referring, but there's a CGI recreation of an actor from a previous Star Wars film that is one of the most disturbing things I've seen in a movie this year. This actor died years ago in real life, but here he's resurrected looking like a Robert Zemeckis motion-capture reject; the effect is so unconvincing, it felt as if I'd been not only pulled out of the movie, but the roof of the theater blew off and I was yanked out of the building by The Dark Knight's sky hook. Even if the effect had been perfect, though, the inclusion of this person's digital recreation strikes me as a deeply troubling benchmark for blockbuster filmmaking. Disney pulled some interesting aging tricks with Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War recently, but those were using actors who are still alive. It seems to me like death would be a pretty good place to draw the line, but apparently that's not the case. I don't know what kind of rights the studio needed to procure from the actor's estate before they could make this happen, but I shudder to think of the ways this technology might be used moving forward.
Make no mistake: overall, this is an enjoyable, well-made picture, but the film just barely manages to justify its own existence. It retroactively makes A New Hope a better movie by explaining how the Empire could have possibly built such a ludicrous flaw into the Death Star, and the act of answering that question alone makes this film worthwhile. Fascinating, fleshed out characters like Jyn, Cassian, and Bodhi are just icing on the cake after that. But the story gets to be a bit of a slog during its second act, and for all the talk about how this was supposed to be an intense war movie, it rarely feels visceral. The action is fine, but it always sort of feels...well, like a Star Wars film; the spin-offs are Disney's chance to stretch these stories beyond the established template, and while it definitely isn't a retread of what we've seen before (a claim we can't make about The Force Awakens), there's a ton of room to push things further than what we see here. That's one of my biggest takeaways about Rogue One: Disney could have told any story it wanted, and the decision to tell this specific story feels safe. It absolutely expands the universe within the franchise and provides some positive messages ("rebellions are built on hope"), but my hope was that it would go a little further and make this movie feel like more than just a well-filmed connect-the-dots exercise with a dash of heart. Oh well. I'll just have to get a new hope.