Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (****1/2): There is hope. Lot’s of it.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – 2016

Director Gareth Edwards
Screenplay Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker

There is a stirring in the Star Wars universe not felt since the release of The Empire Strikes Back. The feeling is one of genuine hope in the future of a universe that has been suffering recycled storylines since The Return of the Jedi. Creatures and droids we’ve seen before living in entirely different worlds. New creatures, new droids and even more new worlds. The intensity to the story is unrelenting. There is precious little time for learning and even less for hugging. Even so, we get a new collection of heroes that become a very bright light in a series that was dimming, even with the financial revival that was last year’s The Force Awakens.

The story begins with Galen Erso (Mikkelson), a brilliant scientist who is on the run with his family from the throes of his former friend Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn). At stake is the development of the primary weapon in the Empire’s new station. Having stalled in it creation, Krennic needs Erso to complete his vision of the weapon. Suffice to say Erso is captured after tragedy strikes in the form of Krennic’s personal crew of Storm Troopers.

Move forward a couple decades and we have a battle station on the verge of completion. A message escapes from Erso’s research facility, setting off a chain of events that leads to the drafting of his daughter, Jyn (Jones) by the Alliance. She teams reluctantly with Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassion Andor (Luna) and his droid, K-2SO (Tudyk) on a quest to find an old friend of the Erso’s, Saw Gerrera (Whitaker). Each destination leads to clues driving the team forward, even if not everyone is even close to being on the same page.

The division and eventual formation of the team is handled clearly and logically. There are no super powerful individuals, and a variety of beliefs. Some have faith in the force, others have more faith in themselves. It’s a highlight of the film that Edwards, Weitz and Gilroy are able to walk the line of cliche and have it feel like they are breaking new ground.

The Empire, meanwhile, looms as heavily as it ever has on film. There is so much power on display here, it feels overwhelming at times. Better still, the Stormtroopers hit what they are aiming at almost as often as they miss. The diplomatic gymnastics within the ranks is absolutely delicious. Seeing Krennic bark in one scene, while knowing its only because he’ll soon be groveling is worth the price of admission. This is the best I have ever seen the Empire on film. The weaknesses are still there, but there is a logic to explain how they are breached.

The cameos are frequent and remarkable. It is well known Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) looms enough to give everyone a view of his chillingly precise power to wreak havoc with our psyche. This is not the repentant and weak version, just waiting to be shown the light. This is the foot soldier on which an Empire (and a cult, apparently) is based.

There are only a few moments in the film that take one out of the revary. The inevitable fate of some who clearly had the opportunity to escape happens enough to make the plot device less effective. Then there is the “surprise” of the very last scene. Not a surprise and not all that well shot. And what’s worse is everything leading up to it is as intense and assured as anything shot on film since the Millennium Falcon escaped Hoth.

Rogue One is easily the third best film in the series, and it may even be a tie for 2nd with A New Hope. The acting, writing and camera work are all stellar, even if there are more speaking parts than I remember in a Star Wars film. Every one in my group, from 45 to 10, had no problems understanding the premise and following along. That is saying something, because they move ever forward throughout the story at near light speed.
This film makes the film that immediately follows it better. I did not think it was possible. Go see it. Again and again.

(****1/2)

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