“Rogue One” is somewhat of a distant cousin of the “Star Wars” saga — not a sister and not a sequel.
The superfans need to get that straight before they settle in their seats and expect the initial burst of the “Star Wars” logo, the narrative crawl at the beginning disappearing into the galaxy, set to the blasting trumpets of John Williams’ main “Star Wars” title, which is how all the prequels and last year’s sequel began.
That does not happen here, and it is the film’s greatest flaw, because it makes strangers out of the new characters instead of making them instantly familiar to the fandom.
The world of “Rogue One” exists in the same time frame as the original 1977 classic. Bouncing a little confusingly from planet to planet to base to moon, we meet our heroine, Jyn Erso, played by a stoic Felicity Jones.
[Related: The story behind "Rogue One"]
She is orphaned as a young girl when the Empire murders her mother and her weapons-engineer genius father. A mysterious figure, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) rescues her, and we learn of the Empire’s plans to build a giant planetary weapon of destruction. Fast forward to Jyn as an adult, with her identity kept secret because it turns out, her father is very much alive, working for the Empire, and he is the architect of that weapon of destruction, the Death Star.
The jam-packed, unwinding storyline is a good one, albeit with familiar “Star Wars” elements, seeing Jyn joining forces with rebel pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) as they search for her father. Unbeknownst to Jyn, Andor is assigned by the rebels to kill him.
Jyn discovers her father wasn’t all bad; he agreed to work on the Death Star for the Empire, sure, but he booby-trapped it, and Jyn realizes that if she can get his plans to the rebellion, they can destroy the weapon before it destroys them. But first she has to convince a skeptical rebellion that her father’s Trojan Horse really exists.
To give away any more of the plot would rob the fandom of some fun surprises, but anyone who has seen “Star Wars” knows that Luke Skywalker eventually made that bulls eye shot and sealed the Death Star’s fate.
In spite of its many entertaining parts, “Rogue One” has a puzzling lack of heart overall. The elements are in place — stunning visual effects, a pitch-perfect cast in each of their roles, a busy, interesting storyline that planet-hops all over the galaxy as the rebels attempt their David and Goliath mission to steal the building plans of the Death Star and get them to the rebellion. But there is an ultimate disconnect somehow.
A major emotional component the film lacks is the original “Star Wars” music. The 1977 film owes a huge debt to John Williams’ full-bodied, character-driven score that gave what was essentially a corny science fiction movie the big heart it needed to become a beloved blockbuster.
There was a hint of “Luke’s Theme” during a moment in “Rogue One” and suddenly the film’s heart began to beat for a moment, and the absence of those original character melodies was huge.
“Rogue One” is scored by the more than capable Michael Giacchino, but without that main “Star Wars” title, and all the subtle cues and nuances of Williams’ score with which the fandom is so familiar, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” feels like it is not a “Star Wars Story.” When the original end credit score finally appears, it feels like a huge relief.
Still, even without the musical magic, this off-shoot is a heck of a fun science-fiction film, and the last third of the movie is a wild, epic battle. The superfans will be rewarded at the very end, and they may want to get to the theater sooner rather than later, before the spoiler gets out. It’s quite a payoff.
There are a few winks and nods here and there from the original franchise but this film is meant to stand on its own, and as such it’s fine. As a “Star Wars” cousin however, it would have benefited from a few more hand-me-downs.
"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"
3 stars (out of four)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen
Running time: 134 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action.