Spoiler-free impressions follow:
Bottom Line: I really enjoyed Rogue One. In many ways, it was more successful as a movie than any Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. While The Force Awakens had a lot that it had to do to–bridge the original trilogy and set up a new one–this movie had a simple, well-understood premise: tell the story of how the Rebel Alliance got the plans to the original Death Star.
It does that well: the new characters are introduced briskly, and while some are a bit thin–created for a specific scene or set of scenes in the third act–they generally feel like they belong to the environment we’d expect to be in place in the era of A New Hope. Indeed, the story and characters told here give the rebellion the opportunity for that hope.
The movie is necessarily dark: this is a time of great dread, as it becomes apparent across the galaxy that a superweapon of the greatest power ever known has been created. The members of Rogue One are facing odds that are insurmountable, but have no choice but to try to get those plans. Some are motivated by personal history, including the lead character Jyn Erso, and others are loyal to the rebel cause.
The rebellion itself is interestingly portrayed as even more of a rag-tag alliance than in A New Hope, and Mon Mothma is not quite capable of keeping all of them headed in the same direction. It’s refreshing to get to see more of the background that A New Hope never had time to let us see.
That’s one of the great successes of this movie, as a Star Wars fan: the additional detail of the universe that A New Hope introduced us to. Unlike the prequels, which went over-the-top in detailing the glory days of the galaxy before the Empire, this one gets to show us more of the more beat-down reality of the middle trilogy. The notable cameos of familiar characters are clearly enhanced by computer imagery to look like the actors from the other movies and it’s mostly very well-done, although they can look a little plasticky at times. Still, it’s thrilling to see some old friends mixed in with these new ones.
It’s not all success, though: In an attempt to keep this as “not really Star Wars”, we’re denied the opening fanfare a “real” Star Wars movie would get and in fact this movie never even calls itself “Star Wars” at all. The music is much poorer not only for the absence of John Williams, but for not using the themes we’re all accustomed to, except at the very end. The new music is clearly trying to evoke the style of the other movies in the franchise, but mostly fails to raise the nostalgia that would have been felt with the real music. This is a real shame, since the music is one of the strengths of the original trilogy. I am positive that fans will be re-dubbing the Star Wars music over this movie’s score, and it will almost certainly make the experience of the movie better.
In trying to keep its distance from the main franchise, parts of this movie feel like it’s ripping off Star Wars instead of being part of it, especially when the score seems like it’s finally going to hit the familiar notes, only to head off in a similar-but-not-right direction. That’s a shame, because the story this movie tells is a pivotal one in the history of Star Wars, and I think it’s a fantastic addition to the Star Wars canon. I’d much rather have seen more anthologies with great characters and smaller mandates for the scope of their storylines like Rogue One than the atrocious yet “offical” episodes I-III we got instead.
I can’t wait to see it again.