First things first: No, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not the sequel to last year's Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Expect that next December. And, yes, this stand-alone adventure, set between episodes III and IV of the saga, is a way to milk more profits from the cash-cow franchise. But director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy do so pretty honorably. They tell a war story that works just fine on its own terms, even if it's distinctly darker than some viewers may expect from the Star Wars universe.
To start with, Rogue One fills a notable chink in the backstory of the space opera that set the world on fire back in 1977. Most of us remember the climactic scene where Luke Skywalker pilots his X-wing fighter to target a key weakness in the Empire's genocidal weapon, the Death Star. But how did the Rebel Alliance get those handy blueprints?
Well, it all starts with the Death Star being designed by Hannibal Lecter — er, I mean Galen Erso, a character played by Mads Mikkelsen, who played Lecter on TV. Here he's a decent fellow forced into a nasty job who equips his creation with a fatal flaw, and then sends a defecting Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) out to spread the news.
Meanwhile, Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has been tasked with preventing the weapon's completion by finding and taking out its creator, using Erso's long-lost daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), as bait. But Jyn, a career criminal, has her own ideas.
All these characters (and more) are awkwardly introduced in staccato early scenes, which establish both Jyn and Cassian as the sort of ruthless-yet-principled characters who populate old war films and westerns. The story coalesces when they team up with a blind wannabe-sort-of Jedi (Donnie Yen), his mercenary buddy (Jiang Wen) and a delightfully passive-aggressive droid (Alan Tudyk). Together, this ragtag crew must infiltrate an Imperial stronghold to steal the Death Star plans — a desperate measure for desperate times.
Since Rogue One slides neatly into the preexisting plot of the original Star Wars trilogy, it doesn't feel glaringly imitative of it, as The Force Awakens did. Even the jarring CGI "resurrection" of deceased actor Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin is justified in story terms. The film offers fans the satisfaction of seeing events leading up to the iconic original, while giving center stage to the sort of non-iconic characters who would normally be disposable extras.
If only those characters had more development, or even a bit more downtime to joke around. Given the screen time the film devotes to Jyn's backstory, her sullen blankness is frustrating. As the story hyper-drives from action set piece to action set piece, the reasons for her crucial change of heart get lost in the shuffle, while Cassian has exactly one stirring speech to explain his motivations. Ahmed, who was so likable in Nightcrawler, has even less to do. They're a charismatic cast, but only the droid with a 'tude registers as having much of a personality — and gets all the best lines.
This character flatness matters less as the film moves toward its surprisingly poignant conclusion, which showcases Edwards' deftness in alternating between boots-on-the-ground and high-in-the-sky action. That action is gritty — probably too much so for small children. Much of it is performed by bit players, giving us a war movie's sense of the scope of life lost in pursuit of a greater goal. Rogue One reminds us that not everybody who fights evil gets a heroic climax and a medal ceremony — not a bad message for a cash-in blockbuster.