If there's ever a STAR WARS film that starts as strong as last year's The Force Awakens and finishes with the punch of Rogue One, we'll finally have a movie that can - at long last - take the title from The Empire Strikes Back as "the best STAR WARS movie ever made."
You want more than that? Buckle up.
Disney and Lucasfilm want to give you a STAR WARS movie every year. This isn't so much an "open secret" at this point as a very obvious battle plan to liberate as much money from your wallet as possible on a yearly basis until the day you die. It's why they bought the franchise rights for $4 billion - not to make 3 more movies, but to make 300 more.
And after their last two at-bats, I'm more than fine with that.
Rogue One aims to prove that one need not cleave to the Skywalkers and their galaxy-shaping exploits to tell a story from a galaxy far, far away that's still worthy of attention, and so it wraps its "gamble" in the sweet candy coating of the surest possible of sure things. Spinning the yarn of the unsung heroes who stole the plans of the original Death Star (the plans Princess Leia was carrying when her blockade runner was captured in the opening scene of the original 1977 film), Rogue One is able to dive into the seedy underbelly of assassins, thieves, and extremists who make up some of the less savory corners of the Rebel Alliance - characters who don't have the luxury of the Jedi code or the resources of royalty - while still getting to use some of the most immediately recognizable iconography of the series (which it then leans a little heavily on, but more on that later).
This particular STAR WARS story opens on Jyn Erso, a girl who's torn from her family by Imperials who want her father to work on their planet-killing super-weapon, and then jumps forward to reuinite with her as an adult who's found herself on the wrong side of enough laws to draw the attention of the budding Rebellion. Alliance leaders think she could be the key to getting information from her father that could turn the tide of the war, so the at-first unwilling Jyn is swept into the political intrigue of various Rebel factions, parlays with extremists, and long-odds assaults on Imperial strongholds.
This film doesn't hit the ground running the way Abrams The Force Awakens did, to be sure. There's nothing as immediately endearing as Poe mouthing off to Kylo Ren or the near-transcendent visual storytelling of Rey's introduction. Rogue One is tasked with packing in some heavy exposition and a couple awkward transitions to get everything in place. However, once Jyn is settled with her motley crew of Rebels, monks, defectors, and a (very amusing) reprogrammed Imperial Droid, the movie starts to click. Felicity Jones almost immediately owns her place on the poster as Jyn, portraying a street-smart scrapper who strikes combative-but-compelling chemistry with Diego Luna's Cassian Andor as easily as Alan Tudyk's-by-way-of-VFX K-2SO, as well as showing easy emotional range and as naturalistic physical capability during action beats, and even moments of charismatic inspiration. The film seldom wastes a cast member (you are going to love the hell out of Donnie Yen's blind monk), and even adds a couple fun wrinkles to familiar faces in cameo appearances.
If there's a problem with Rogue One's back half, it stems from this. The film doesn't quite bend over backwards distributing fan service the way the Prequels did, but the nature of the story it's telling necessitates either the active participation or the obvious omission of certain characters who can't help but feel like winks at the audience. Yes, certain pieces need to be on the board or their absence would be as apparent as their presence, but there are a few times where the movie is just a bit too eager to point them out and let them linger too long. STAR WARS has been delivering "fan service" literally since its first sequel (there's a reason "I have a bad feeling about this" became a running gag), but in a film that is afforded the opportunity to make the original Death Star even more terrifying (which it does) rather than just shake-'n'-bake a new knock-off, it feels like this film could have leaned less heavily on a few other elements.
That said, Rogue One still emerges as an accomplished film in its own right, proving that the fringes of the galaxy are as compelling as the bright center, and delivering one of the strongest finales in the franchise's history. Its "feel" lands far close to The Dirty Dozen or Saving Private Ryan than anything else in the series, and its central message - of a group of diverse, oppressed people from all racial and spiritual walks of life coming together under the leadership of a woman who few are willing to trust in order to save the galaxy from a fascist, violent regime that would topple a Republic - could not be more timely.
And yes, it's satisfying as anything to watch these rogues kick the crap out of some space Nazis.