"...filled with gritted teeth, desperation, and a nervous energy"

Rogue One stays on target.

(121816) After Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side and just before Princess Leia found a New Hope, a group of brave warriors set out to save the galaxy by stealing the top-secret schematics of Darth Vader's planet-obliterating Death Star. Their story—one paved in courage and, potentially, the ultimate sacrifice—is given a brief, shining moment in the spotlight in "Rogue One," the first in a planned series of big-screen spin-offs meant to provide insight and shading to the "Star Wars" canon. Director Gareth Edwards (2014's "Godzilla") and scribes Chris Weitz (2015's "Cinderella") and Tony Gilroy (2012's "The Bourne Legacy") have made either a standalone feature or an unofficial Episode III 1/2, remaining faithful to what must inevitably happen at the risk of culminating in a downer of a third act. If their narrative and characters prove somewhat undernourished, credit is due in just how involving they ensure their every component finally becomes.

Felicity Jones (2016's "Inferno") is emotionally all in, bringing equal parts fortitude and vulnerability to heroine Jyn Erso. Having watched her mother killed and her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), abducted when she was only a child, Jyn has lived much of her life in Imperial captivity. A chance at freedom arrives when she is recruited by the Rebellion to track down her dad. He was directly involved in designing the Galactic Empire's heavily armed space station Death Star, and may also hold the key in destroying it. Joining Jyn on her quest are Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an Intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, and trusty android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk).

One of the crafty achievements of "Rogue One" (the subtitle used in advertising, "A Star Wars Story," is nowhere to be found in the film proper) is how seamlessly it is able to segue into 1977's "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope." While the end goal is a foregone conclusion for fans who know the "Star Wars" pictures inside and out, its last twenty minutes genuinely surprise with how riveting they become. The setup to this war-torn climax is long and pacing admittedly lags due to a certain lack of development—one yearns, for example, to learn more about Jyn and her experiences in the intervening years between childhood and when the plot picks up with her two decades later—but the gripping-bordering-on-haunting payoff makes the wait worthwhile.

Performances are reliable across the board, from Diego Luna's (2013's "Elysium") Cassian to Mads Mikkelsen's (2010's "Clash of the Titans") Galen, but this is by and large Felicity Jones' film. She makes the most of what is a one-and-done role, her fate and that of her comrades blessing the proceedings with an unsentimental cumulative pathos. There is an undeniable tragedy in Jyn's life story, but she voyages forward, risking everything while playing her own part in saving the universe. As well-cast as Ben Mendelsohn (2014's "Exodus: Gods and Kings") is as the villainous Orson Krennic, Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Army, the character is a rather generic baddie, no match for the weightier, more daunting likes of Darth Vader (who memorably appears, along with James Earl Jones' iconic voice, in a few scenes).

"Rogue One" is too bleak to be truly rousing, but that is at least partially why it lingers and percolates in one's memory after it is over. Restricted by the requirements of the material, director Gareth Edwards sees the unique personal stamp he put on 2010's "Monsters" and 2014's "Godzilla" softened here even as he refuses to compromise. Meanwhile, composer Michael Giacchino's (2016's "Star Trek Beyond") stirring music score stands on its own while paying spry tribute to John Williams' original themes and orchestrations. Tech credits are, naturally, ace across the board. "Rogue One" is less broadly entertaining than the best of the "Star Wars" installments, including 2015's terrific J.J. Abrams-directed "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens." The requirements of the premise and where it must lead trap it in a corner, levity replaced by a sobering undercurrent that only deepens in hindsight. Even if replay value, by extension, is likely less than the norm for the ongoing saga, Edwards uses the story's limited boundaries to his benefit. By the note-perfect closing moments, "Rogue One" has transformed into a richly rewarding experience.

Given how ingrained in Episode IV’s story it is - the end of Rogue One almost runs straight into the start of A New Hope – it's surprising how fresh Rogue One feels. Yes, it's a Star Wars film through and through, but it's unlike any of its seven predecessors in some ways. It's filled with gritted teeth, desperation, and a nervous energy. Whereas JJ Abrams nailed the mythic quality of the series in The Force Awakens, Edwards has pinned down the military side – JJ got the “star”, Edwards got the “wars”. In a series as clean-cut and populist as Star Wars, it takes some guts to suggest that the heroic Rebellion might make people question its goals. The path to A New Hope is littered with bodies, wreckage, and sacrifice.

In short, Rogue One works. It’s a cracking sci-fi adventure worthy of the Star Wars brand. There’s no opening crawl, no Jedi, no mention of the name Skywalker, and plenty of new music, but Rogue One does a great job of walking the fine line between being a Star Wars film and not feeling like any other Star Wars film.

Directed by:  Gareth Edwards
Written by: Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy. From a story by John Knoll & Gary Whitta. Based on the characters created by George Lucas
Starring:   Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk
Released: 121616
Length: 134 minutes
Rating:   Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

STAR WARS ROGUE ONE ©  2016 Walt Disney Films

Review © 2016 Alternate Reality, Inc.