It would be easy to look at Disney's plan for Star Wars spin-offs with an extremely cynical eye: Star Wars movies make millions of dollars. Disney likes dollars. Therefore, Disney will make a Star Wars movie every year. Simple math.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is anything but a cheap cash-in. Not only is it the best Star Wars prequel film (taking place immediately before the original 1977 movie, A New Hope, but many years after episodes I-III), it's also a movie that stands impressively tall on its own merits. Yes, it's part of a series that is now eight movies strong, but it also works alone as a movie about war, oppression, a dangerous heist, a daring rebellion and a spark of hope that ignites the final stages of a revolution.
It's the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a woman who had to take care of herself growing up after her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced back into the service of the Empire. As an Imperial scientist, Galen is credited as being one of the chief brains behind the super weapon that Star Wars fans know well as the Death Star — a moon-sized space station capable of destroying whole planets.
Jyn is rescued (somewhat unwillingly) from the clutches of the Empire by the scrappy Rebel Alliance. They've caught wind of a message from Galen, and they want Jyn's help in finding him before the Empire turns its weapon of mass destruction on them and snuffs out the rebellion forever.
As it occupies the same time period as A New Hope, much of Rogue One's aesthetic is familiar — in a good way. It's got the same grimy feel as that original movie, with Stormtroopers caked in layers of dirt and dusty city streets filled with people clothed in little more than rags. You may think of science fiction as "the future," but this future feels very old.
Rogue One also feels different. It's less beholden to the constraints of the numbered episodes of the Star Wars saga, to the point that it's the first film in the series not to open with the traditional crawl of text that floats into space. It takes awhile before we even hear John Williams' classic theme, as we're treated instead to an original score by Michael Giacchino (who nonetheless provides sounds that feel very Star Wars-esque). This isn't a story about the Skywalker family or Jedi or even The Force (though its presence is felt). It's a story about a band of people from widely different backgrounds coming together to fight a common enemy.
The principal characters are also all new to the series, and they're a highly engaging group to spend time with. Cassian (Diego Luna) is a devoted and loyal rebel who is nonetheless conflicted about some of the dirty work he's had to do to fight the Empire. Monk-like Chirrut (Donnie Yen) doesn't let a little thing like blindness stop him from being a total badass and a better fighter than most people who have functioning eyes. Riz Ahmed is convincing as the unsure Imperial-pilot-turned-Rebel Bodhi. And it might sound like blasphemy, but K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is a better droid companion than C-3PO.
Notably, these heroes are all non-white with the exception of Jyn, who is non-male (and K-2SO, who is non-human). It's a cast as diverse as you would expect a gigantic galaxy to be, and it works to the film's benefit.
Rogue One might take place "a long time ago," and it might have technology that feels light years ahead of our own, but the film's universe actually feels very 2016. There's nothing new about the Imperials acting like Nazis (hey, guess what? The Empire is basically just Nazis. They even have a labor camp), but their occupation of a poor desert city — and the way in which the citizens of that city act in response — has clear shades of Middle Eastern conflict, which helps Rogue One feel more like a movie about war on Earth than war in the stars. If A New Hope has shades of King Arthur, Rogue One could practically be about World War II.
The Empire we see here is no less dark (you will never think, even for a moment, that they might be the good guys), and Rogue One alludes to the fact that the Rebels have had to operate in shades of gray to survive. Many political and philosophical essays can (and likely will, very shortly) be written on this film's portrayal of the Empire alone.
Series fans will delight in many references and cameos — some small, some very large. Rogue One's great strength, though, is that it doesn't lean on nostalgia so much that it would fall over without it. You could conceivably watch this movie as an introduction to the series as a whole.
Darth Vader's highly anticipated inclusion fits perfectly, and James Earl Jones' voice is just as menacing now as it was in 1977. That said, some of the films few (but big) faults come from references to the old films that feel awkward. Certain original trilogy characters are treated in a fascinating but less elegant way that's hard to talk around without spoiling certain plot elements.
But then there's a scene with Vader in a hallway, and every intentional tug at your nostalgia's heartstrings is utterly worth it.
Rogue One isn't just a good Star Wars movie — it's a good movie, period.
In a way, it feels like it doesn't have any right to be that good. On paper, only the most diehard of fans should care about a movie that centers on what was boiled down to mere sentences in the original film, starring characters that nobody knows who are unlikely to ever appear again. But you'll care a lot about those characters and their rebellion, and the rest of the Star Wars universe is richer for it.
ROGUE ONE (A-)
PG-13 (for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action). 133 minutes. In wide release.