Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Opening Thursday, Dec. 15

As the first in a series of spinoff movies set in the Star Wars universe, Rogue One is an experiment of sorts. If it succeeds, you can expect to see a new Star Wars movie in theaters pretty much every year until the end of time.

Fine by me. If Disney and Lucasfilm can deliver a movie as good as Rogue One on a yearly basis, we could declare it a kind of global movie holiday. May 4 would seem to be the proper date.

Rogue One is essentially a war picture set in the Star Wars universe. (Warning: mild spoilers ahead.) The story features a rag-tag platoon of fighters on a treacherous mission against impossible odds. They’re almost certain to fail, but if they succeed—why, it could turn the tide of the war. Switch up the weapons and props, and our heroes could be taking a hill or blowing up a bridge in a classic World War II movie.

The story has a deeper resonance, though, for those familiar with the Star Wars saga. The action is set just before the events of the original 1977 movie, and the magnitude of what’s at stake will be clear to anyone halfway conversant in Star Wars mythology. The Death Star is involved, and Darth Vader. You may see a familiar droid or two, or even a princess. But don’t make any assumptions about where or how you’ll see them.

A war movie is only as good as its soldiers, and Rogue One has a crack squad. Among our heroes: Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), resistance fighter; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Imperial defector; Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a Force-sensitive warrior monk; Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a mercenary bodyguard; K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a surprisingly bad-ass droid; and Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), our chief protagonist and rebel with a cause.

Characters are introduced gradually as the action bounces around the galaxy, each location more interesting than the last. The Rebel Alliance is waging asymmetrical war against the evil Galactic Empire, but these aren’t the plucky rebels from the original trilogy. You won’t find any earnest blond moisture farmers here. This rebellion is made of spies, deserters, saboteurs, and assassins. On one dusty planet, guerrilla fighters ambush the occupying Imperial forces as a city-size Star Destroyer looms overhead. Several grim sequences recall the drenched neon grime of Blade Runner.

The story line is surprisingly intricate, but the well-crafted script keeps us oriented at all times. In fact, Rogue One actually plugs some conspicuous plot holes from the original movie. Did you ever wonder how the Empire’s ultimate battle station, the Death Star, could be taken out by a single shot to the exhaust port? Well, now we know. The script doesn’t have many light moments, but listen closely and you’ll hear a couple of updates to recurring gags concerning bad feelings and odds.

Rogue One is directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards, creator of the lo-fi science fiction gem Monsters. (If you haven’t seen it already, it’s on Netflix.) This is relevant because, with Monsters, Edwards crafted a sophisticated narrative with impressive special effects on a reported budget of about $500,000. He knows how to tell a story while still getting maximum mileage out of the visual effects.

Here, Edwards has a much bigger budget, way better technology, and an army of digital artisans who grew up on Star Wars. After taking notes on a dozen different eye-popping action sequences and design triumphs, I stopped counting and just sat back to enjoy the show. The climactic orbital clash between the Empire and the Rebel Fleet is maybe the single best space battle in all the Star Wars films.

Complaints are few: The central villain this time around isn’t very compelling, although our brief visits with Vader and another sinister alum from the first film are terrific. The K-2SO droid character doesn’t really work. And like The Force Awakens, last year’s installment of the main sequel trilogy, the structure of Rogue One is very familiar indeed. Absent fathers figure heavily, and everyone ends up chasing cryptic holographic messages across the galaxy. Once again, the finale crosscuts between three battles: in space, on the ground, and inside the latest impregnable Imperial base. Will a shield have to come down? Of course. A shield always has to come down. These storytelling rhythms are so singular by now that they could be individually copyrighted. Knowing Disney, they probably are.

But you can only go back to the gravity well so many times. Word is that there are already two more stand-alone films in the anthology series pipeline. Why not wander off into more radical cross-genre areas? If Rogue One is a war picture variation on the space opera theme, what about a mystery story? A horror story? Or how about a genuine swashbuckler, in the spirit of Indiana Jones? The next anthology movie is supposed to chronicle the adventures of young Han Solo. Perfect!

Rogue One lacks the mythic resonance of the best Star Wars films, but it’s got enough of the classic mojo to bring out those giddy fanboy shivers. In fact, at the end of the movie, I had an impulse I haven’t had since I was a delinquent teenage movie nerd at the mall. I wanted to hide from the ushers, sneak back in, and watch it again. That’s got to count for something, right?