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Movie Review: POSSIBLE MILD SPOILERS "Rogue One" Delivers Thrills, Drama, and Hope

Starring Felicity Jones, Forrest Whtitaker, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelson, and Jimmy Smits
Storyby John Knoll
Screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Reviewed by Paul Gibbs & Patrick Gibbs

Out of Four

The question of whether stand alone Star Wars movies built around new characters can work has been answered resoundingly in the affirmative. This shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone who has been watching Star Wars: Rebels, one of the best shows on television, but there's one major difference between previous spinoffs and director Gareth Edwards' Rogue One;  where all previous spinoffs have been aimed primarily at a young audience, Rogue One is a gritty and sometimes violent war movie in the truest sense, and it's taking a chance in aiming for the audience that has been clamoring for a more overtly adult take on the material. More than anything else, this movie plays like Star Wars as written by Alistair Maclean, albeit with less over the top, macho characters.

The story begins with a brilliant scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), a pioneer in the technology of Kyber crystals (the energy source used to power a Jedi's lightsaber) hiding out with his wife and young daughter, Jyn, to avoid the reach of the Galactic Empire, who are looking to use his knowledge and abilities for nefarious ends. When Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn),  an Imperial officer, shows up at the house with stormtroopers, the lives of the Ersos are changed forever.

As an adult, Jyn (Felicity Jones) is approached by the struggling Rebel Alliance for a secret mission, and she reluctantly teams with spy Cassian Andor  (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial Droid K2-SO (Alan Tudyk).

In some respects, Rogue One is the geekiest Star Wars film to date, in that this one feels like it's made for the hardcore fans who are deeply steeped in the mythology of the rebellion. Which is not to say it's inaccessible to the more casual fan, but if you're into the universe enough to immediately know who Mon Mothma and General Dodonna are, or to get excited by the name Yavin 4, this movie is especially for you. And those are among the more obvious references.

Director Edwards shows the same impressive abilities with action and suspence here that he did with his version of Godzilla, with the extended climactic sequence rivaling anything we've seen in the history of the Star Wars franchise, and he offers us an epic space battle that dwarfs anything we've seen since the 1977 original.  And while it's always tough comparing body counts and levels of violence in a Star Wars film (after all, this is a franchise where we've seen entire planets and star systems destroyed, though with the actual deaths taking place off screen), this is grittier than The Empire Strikes Back and more violent than Revenge of the Sith. However, none of the violence is particularly gory or graphic, at least not beyond the level we're used to for a Star Wars film. There's just more of it, and it's not all happening to Stormtroopers (the best comparison would be to say it's akin to the harsher '60's World War II movies, but it's certainly not Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge.).

Aside from cameos from characters like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa (again played by Jimmy Smits, an extremely welcome presence), we're dealing with an entirely new set of characters here, and the circumstances and pacing of the film don't always allow for them to be as fleshed out as we might like. But a strong cast helps considerably. Jones more than rises to the occasion of being asked to carry a blockbuster, and Jyn Erso will easily join the ranks of Leia and Rey (and Ahsoka Tano for those who get into the animated shows, and if you are not one of them you are missing out) on the list of revered Star Wars heroines. Tough and resourceful but with a lot of heart, Jyn manages to be both formidable and endearing. Luna brings presence and charisma to his Cassian Andor, a sometimes morally ambiguous character (like a space going Jack Bauer, Cassian will do anything it takes to complete the mission and protect the Alliance.).  As pilot Bodhi Rook, Riz Ahmed is dealing with a somewhat underwritten character who is given few if any distinctive personality traits, but Ahmed gIves a solid performance that causes us to care about Bodhi's fate. Donnie Yen is very likable and approriately enigmatic as blind Force mystic Chirrut Imwe, and his interaction with his reluctant sidekick Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) ranges from amusing to touching.  And as K2-SO, Alan Tudyk steals the film with all of the best quips and comic relief moments, and also manages to give the mechanical creature a soul.

On the Imperial side of things, Ben Mendelsohn earns a place of honor on the long list of weaselly Imperial officers with pseudo-British accents, giving us a scheming and cunning villain who seems more concerned with his own career advancement than the fate of the galaxy.  And perhaps the most widely debated performance will be the extremely advanced FX that allow Peter Cushing to sort of return as Grand Moff Tarkin, the iconic villain from the original film. The effects are obviously accomplished with some form of CGI, possibly mixed with footage of Cushing. It's something of a mixed bag, as it's jaw-dropping in its quality and yet still not 100% convincing. Like the effects Marvel has been using to de-age Robert Downey, Jr and Michael Douglas, it offers the mouth watering prospect of what it's going to advance to in 10 years, and it's good enough to accept for now, if a bit distracting. But it's got to give actors a weird feeling knowing they may well now be signing on to keep making franchise films long after they shuffle off this mortal coil. And if they ever try to do this to Alec Guiness they better pray he can't return as a blue ghost and Force choke them (though the estate of Peter Cushing is credited with a special thanks on the end of the film, indicating that permission was given.).

The grittier edge will likely keep Rogue One from being quite the general audience crowd pleaser that The Force Awakens was, but even with that and and considerably more hand-held camera work than its predecessors, this has the unmistakable feel of a Star Wars film, and most fans are going to love it. It opens up a whole new galaxy of possibilities for self-contained films in the franchise that tell the stories of heroes other than the Skywalkers, and shows there is room for a degree of experimenting with different styles, tones, and subgenres. It's a triumph for Lucasfilm and Disney that makes the continued development of the franchise beyond the new trilogy to be an exciting prospect.

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