We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
Early trailers for "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" promised a work in the vein of "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Dirty Dozen"—impossible mission movies that weren't afraid to kill off the vivid characters they created. This film about a band of misfits stealing the plans to the first Death Star is that kind of work. It culminates in a thunderous final act that weaves together the most impressive space battle in the series with a prolonged ground assault on an Imperial fortress in which casualties have both physical and emotional weight (which is something "Star Wars" was never big on). But it also bridges the fairy-tale despair of the prequels to the rah-rah idealism of the original trilogy, spackling decades-old logic holes as it goes along. (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's script even retro-engineers an answer to the question of why the Galactic Empire would build a super-weapon that could be vaporized with a single well-placed shot.) "Rogue One" is a letdown in other areas, and there are creative decisions so ill-conceived they take you out of the story. But somehow these aren't enough to sink the movie, which manages to succeed as both super-nerdy fan service and the first entry since the 1977 original that will satisfy people who have never seen a "Star Wars" film.
Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, the lone child of Imperial scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) who invented the Death Star. She joins a band of misfits that includes a cold-blooded Rebel assassin named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); a blind but still lethal warrior-priest named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); Chirrut's stoic, cranky but loyal best friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a legendary marksman; former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who claims he defected to the Rebels after realizing the Death Star's power, and Clone Wars veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a revolutionary whose cyborg legs and assisted breathing make him a light-side-of-the-Force answer to baddies like Darth Vader and General Grievous. The movie's undisputed scene stealer, though, is K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid who can break Stormtroopers' necks with a flick of his fist but is as peevish and pouty as C-3PO and tends to blurt out the least reassuring thing at the worst possible moment. (When his human colleagues fret that they won't survive being ejected into space, he corrects them: "I will.")
"Rogue One" was directed by Gareth Edwards, whose 2014 "Godzilla" was one of the most daringly conceived blockbusters of recent years, so much so that some viewers found it frustrating and pretentious. This one is more conventional, from its clockwork storytelling to its relentless, brutal postscript (which I bet is where a lot of Disney's reshoot money went). But the film still has enough moments of beauty and terror to mark it as the work of an artist rather than a glorified craftsman. A Death Star "test" on a single city is more horrifying than any similar attack in the franchise because we see how the battle station's green rays tear up the land, creating tidal waves of earth that suggest a cross between an earthquake and a tsunami. The space battles make the odd physics of "Star Wars" seem as comprehensible as 18th century flotillas clashing in a bay near a port; there's even a combination tugboat-torpedo that can drill into the hulls of enemy starships and push them to one side. Smaller, more intimate action scenes have a tactile sensibility as well. Rain, fire and wind have a fullness and weight rarely seen in CGI-heavy fantasies. When characters scamper up ladders or navigate wet, crumbling cliffs, you flinch, because Edwards makes you fear minor cuts and bruises as keenly as maiming and incineration.
Darth Vader makes a couple of appearances—both chilling; and how grand it is to hear James Earl Jones' rumbling baritone once more—and there's a rubbery digital Grand Moff Tarkin puttering around the Death Star bridge as well (I don't know if I should say he's played by Peter Cushing; how to refer to a bunch of ones and zeroes badly imitating a dead man?). But the main heavy is a bureaucrat: Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military, which is a fancy way of saying "the guy who bosses around the scientists actually creating the Death Star." Krennic, played with a bitter, resentful edge by Mendelsohn, has a long-ago connection to Jyn that turns "Rogue One" into a slow-fuse revenge flick once all the details are laid out.