A long time ago on a place called Earth, there used to be an extended waiting period between “Star Wars” sequels, forcing fans to feast on scraps of information for years as the blockbusters marched through stages of production, find their releases practically declared national holidays. Those days are over. Now that the Walt Disney Corporation owns the brand, “Star Wars” is currently a yearly event, with “Rogue One” a spin-off of sorts, tiding over the faithful after last year’s “The Force Awakens” rocked expectations and box office records, and “Episode VIII” is prepped for a holiday 2017 debut. While it isn’t the first franchise departure, it’s certainly the largest, with “Rogue One” enjoying an immense creative push to help connect its story to the events of 1977’s “A New Hope.” It’s an experiment that mostly works, but there are moments when it’s clear that the task of finding new areas of “Star Wars” to play with is a bit too much for director Gareth Edwards to handle.
A scientist who’s rejected his ties to the Empire, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) finds his farming life cut short when Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to his life, demanding completion of his work on the Death Star, which is being constructed under the supervision of Governor Tarkin. Left behind is Jyn (Felicity Jones), a young girl adopted by extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who raises her to be a fighter. Years later, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is a rebel spy tasked by Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) to find Galen, tracking news that Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has brought a secret message to Saw, detailing Galen’s work to build a flaw in the Death Star’s system. Breaking Jyn out of prison, Cassian and robot K-20 (Alan Tudyk) hope to reach the missing scientist, but they end up part of a rogue squadron of rebels, joined by blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and warrior Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), eventually becoming aware that it’s up to them to infiltrate an Imperial outpost and steal Galen’s special data concerning the fate of the galaxy.
“Rogue One” is the next logical career step for Edwards, who went from tiny indie “Monsters” to the 2014 “Godzilla” reawakening, continuing his obsession with scale with this entrance into the “Star Wars” universe. The picture marks the return of the Death Star to screens, giving the super weapon a proper prequel backstory, exploring how it came to be, beginning life as Galen’s creation, with Krennic using the enormous power of the planet-smashing space station to inflate his own position in the Empire, finding opportunities for glory few and far between with Tarkin taking credit for everything, while the fearsome Sith lord Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) has his own plans for villainy.
Perhaps the most inspired aspect of “Rogue One” is Krennic, who isn’t a typical powermad baddie, but a periodically emasculated cog in the wheel, mining his frustration to maintain control of underlings and Stormtroopers, scrambling to use the Death Star as his ticket to the big time. He’s not powerful, but he’s dangerous, with Mendelsohn delivering the feature’s finest performance, riding the line between screen tyrant and petulant child, bringing something different to the mix.
“Rogue One” isn’t a Saga installment, lacking many familiar elements of the prequels and sequels as it tries to become its own event. Edwards clearly adores the franchise, and the film is packed with design elements, costuming, and surprises that maintain the “Star Wars” mood, making sure the spin-off slips neatly into the “A New Hope” universe. Fans will likely go nuts spotting cameos by creatures and droids, lending itself to repeated viewings just to see what the production has stuffed into the corners of the frame.
It’s the story itself that doesn’t quite catch fire, with “Rogue One” promising a men-on-a-mission viewing experience that never arrives, as there really isn’t a team element to cheer on. Characters are interesting, especially Chirrut and his special sensory ways and Force reverence, but the group dynamic is missing from the screenplay, which never finds the Rebels and Rogues fighting as one. Instead, the material dances around botched missions and political talk before it finds a proper war zone, tending to various planets and personalities that make the effort feel like a cross between “Star Trek” and “Dune” at times, lacking “Star Wars” zip.
The first half of “Rogue One” is primarily concerned with exposition, trying to set up the enormity of the galaxy and its myriad of inhabitants, while Jyn and Cassian figure out a way to find Bodhi, who’s been captured and tortured. K-20 is the comic relief of the weirdly oppressive movie, with his fondness for percentages and overall sourpuss personality trying to bring some light to a picture that handles a few battle sequences conducted in the dark and rain. He’s a fine addition to the droid sidekick tradition, but it takes an hour for “Rogue One” to really get its engines roaring, with the second half of the feature set on a tropical planet, watching the Rebels take on the Empire, holding off the immense army for as long as they can.