Last year, J.J. Abrams faced the pressure of a thousand Death Stars and captured the essence of a beloved franchise with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Now, director Gareth Edwards has produced a thrilling prequel in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” that not only matches that spirit, but actually enhances the value of George Lucas’ original film.
“Rogue One,” the first Star Wars film to deviate from the now-seven-part saga, is the story of how the Rebel Alliance got the plans to the Death Star that Luke Skywalker blew up in 1977’s “Star Wars: A New Hope.” It is both parallel and integral to the core Star Wars story and feels like the prequel fans were hoping for back in the late 1990s.
Like “The Force Awakens,” “Rogue One” focuses on a female protagonist. When rumors of a new planet-destroying superweapon reach Rebel forces, a disaffected criminal named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is recruited to lead a mission to find her gifted engineer father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen). Galen has been working on the Death Star against his will ever since his wife, Lyra (Valene Kane), was murdered by an Imperial officer named Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), but after 15 years, his loyalties are uncertain.
Rebel intelligence suggests Galen has tried to contact an extremist named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who raised Jyn after her father was taken into Imperial custody. Rebel leaders like Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) hope that Jyn will be able to connect all the dots, and eventually those dots become a quest to steal the Death Star plans from a remote storage facility that is heavily guarded by Imperial forces.
There’s a lot more story here than audiences might expect, but the experience is pure Star Wars. As a film that takes place only days ahead of “A New Hope,” “Rogue One” offers plenty of familiar visuals. But it also benefits from a bold new wave of imaginative content, incorporating new ships that echo familiar designs and introducing enough new characters to keep cosplayers busy for years to come.
One of the best of those characters is K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), an Imperial protocol droid that serves as the dry-witted counterpoint to Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO. K-2SO manages to keep things light without becoming corny and evokes a surprising amount of sympathy for a robot character.
The details will be withheld here, but “Rogue One” offers plenty of nostalgic connections for longtime Star Wars fans while also departing from some franchise traditions along the way. It has already been made known that Darth Vader makes an appearance — and it is a memorable one — but “Rogue One” also packs in some unexpected surprises that will get cheers on opening weekend.
Fortunately, though, “Rogue One” isn’t dependent on fan service, and Edwards’ visual spectacle complements a story that evokes a surprisingly strong emotional impact. The film seems to get better as it goes along, and eventually “Rogue One” lets loose with an incredible third act that features one of the best Star Wars battle scenes to hit the screen.
The final product isn’t perfect — it’s difficult to be specific about complaints without giving away too much — but “Rogue One” boasts enough thrills that most audiences just won’t care. As a prequel, it brings depth and strength to the existing canon, and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” will probably leave fans wishing it could have spun off into a franchise of its own.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action; running time: 133 minutes.