The Rebellion is on the brink of failure and their only hope is a 20 year old Imperial prisoner, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones).
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards, is the first “spin-off film” in the series. The rest have fell in the linear Episodes 1-9 that all revolve around the Skywalker clan. Of course, this is ignoring theatrical films such as Star Wars: The Clone Wars or Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure but nobody is supposed to acknowledge their existence as anything but television.
The tone and pacing of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story also sets it apart. It’s a grittier Star Wars world with more moral ambiguity. The Rebellion, seen as a beacon of hope and justice for the galaxy, isn’t afraid to kill if necessary. In fact, one of our main heroes shoots a man in cold blood in the most shocking murder since Han was still allowed to shoot Greedo first. At times, the main difference between the Rebellion and the Empire is that the Empire is better funded. Mostly, the Empire is more like King George in Hamilton:
So don’t throw away this thing we had
Cuz when push comes to shove
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love
The bulk of the film wavers between a western and espionage thriller. Then, the final act turns into the Seven Samurai. If this sounds like a lot, it is. The pacing is a constant drumbeat with very little downtime. This is good for keeping the story exciting and the audience enthralled but bad for characterization. The Seven Samurai and its western remakes suffered from this same problem. Audiences are supposed to understand all they need to know from a comment here and there and the character’s actions. Other Star Wars films are also guilty of this but it feels more acceptable when the film is part of a series where the audience is assured they’ll learn more later on. When a film is a one and done, the lack of characterization feels sloppy. The fact that the cast of main characters is the most diverse of any Star Wars film makes their scant backgrounds and personalities more maddening. Only Erso and her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), are well developed.
However, the film is still very enjoyable. The new ideas bring a fresh approach to the Star Wars universe. Never before have children been shown being a normal child with toys and loving parents. It’s also interesting to have a world devoid of the Force beyond an abstract notion or belief system. Audiences finally learn why the Death Star had such an obvious flaw. While the pace doesn’t allow for character development, it does keep things exciting. Michael Giacchino is able to seamlessly interweave John Williams’ original themes with his own new ones. Sometimes, this film felt funnier than Star Wars: The Force Awakens, mainly due to the droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk). There are some old friends who show up for a brief cameo or so and the minimal green screen makes it feel more like the original trilogy. Most importantly, in the terms of the Star Wars saga, it gives Star Wars: A New Hope much more emotional weight. The audience fully understands the sacrifice that went into getting those Death Star plans.