Some sci-fi/fantasy fans may wonder if every last drop has already been milked out of the Star Wars franchise. But, judging from this energetic standalone tangent/prequel, more can be exploited for many years to come.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
A scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) lives a sheltered life on a desolate planet that has dark brown terrain that looks volcanic. He resides simply with his wife and young daughter Jyn. Their serene, eco-friendly existence is disturbed the day evil Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, Exodus: Gods and Kings) shows up with his henchman requesting Galen’s services as he seeks to build a Death Star. It’s a diabolical weapon that could annihilate an entire planet with one ray. The interlopers snatch Galen.
Years later, Galen’s twentysomething daughter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything), who has been trained as a warrior thanks to her mentor Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland), seeks out her long lost father. She is aided by a rag tag group of common men who have various reasons for helping her with her quest. Least of all is protecting humans, droids and various hybrid life forms from the certain doom the Death Star can bring.
Jyn’s army of misfits are as determined as she. Says Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, Milk): “You’re not the only one who lost everything. Some of us decided to do something about it.” The rest of the team includes: Cassian’s smart mouth droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk, Trumbo). A pilot, Bodhi Rook (rapper/actor Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist). A blind martial arts wielding monk who believes unconditionally in “The Force,” Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, Hero). And Îmwe’s sidekick and gunslinger Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Together they launch a mission to steal the Death Star plans, and their success or failure may determine the fate of galaxies everywhere.
The script by Chris Weitz (Antz) and Tony Gilroy (the Jason Bourne franchise) adroitly pulls a lot of elements together (a hodgepodge of characters, various planets, adjoining storylines) that must all head in one direction. Everything must lead to a another Star Wars episode that everyone has already seen. After all, this is an independent prequel, its duty is to maneuver itself into a preexisting series and every facet of it is no more than a building block.
The writers do well at setting up a central fight: Rebels against those who would kill everyone. The average filmgoer may get lost in all the intricate plotting, but Star Wars devotees won’t. They won’t sweat the details as long as the storyline and action-filled sequences take them to their outer space nirvana. And for the most part they do. However there is one initial error in judgment. The film would have had a more auspicious beginning if it started with a huge, mind-boggling action scene. But it doesn’t.
Within the boundaries of the elaborate screenplay, director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) performs his duties well. He does justice to the memory of the first film in this continuous space odyssey, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. He neither embarrasses the first director/writer George Lucas, nor does he outdo him or any of the other directors who have tread that path, from Irvin Kershner of Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back up to J. J. Abrams who created Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.
Massive, atomic-looking explosions are a joy to watch. Aerial spacecraft fight scenes are well choreographed, even if a bit routine. The smaller hand-to-hand combat sequences between the death troopers and rebels seem a bit cheesy and unimaginative with flying debris that look like painted cardboard chips. Still, the action segments get the heart racing even if it’s because of their abundance versus their execution.
Edwards is helped by the wondrous camera shots of spacecrafts flying over deep valleys, steep mountain terrain and into the depths of outer space, which are miraculously filmed by cinematographer Greig Fraser (Lion, Zero Dark Thirty). The exterior shots (production designers Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont) are impressive, as are interior shots of space stations. However the souks look very artificial and staged like a marketplace in a Broadway play.
David Crossman and Glyn Dillon’s costume design vacillates dramatically. The ominous capes worn by Krennic cascade down his body like the devil’s curtains. The costumes the rebels wear look like they are off the rack from Urban Outfitters. The most outstanding tech credit goes to composer Michael Giacchino (Oscar winner for Up) for an incessantly over-dramatic score (loud drums and tubas) that puts viewers in an emotional headlock from the opening scenes until that last revelation.
The painstakingly chosen international ensemble plays nicely in the sand box. Villains scowl appropriately. Hero rebels show their duplicity, weaknesses and strengths at the right times. Jones is fine as the lead, but her Jyn is not as memorable as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Aliens series. Whittaker, whose acting prowess can sometimes overshadow roles, restrains himself masterfully. Luna, Ahmed and the rest of the freedom fighters make for energetic merry men. However, some have been better in other movies that gave them more room to breathe. Particularly, Luna shone brighter in Y Tu Mamá También and Ahmed in Nightcrawler.
If you’d never seen a Stars Wars movie before, this film might seem like just another lavishly produced sci-fi space story. If you’re addicted to the franchise, watching the filmmakers herd the action, plot devices, characters and indomitable spirit into a funnel that leads to a pivotal point in a previous Star Wars movie will probably be a lot of fun to watch.
Eventually, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has a lot of thrust. Wait for it.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com