** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD **
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is set in the time after Star Wars: Episode III and Star Wars: Episode IV; but it is a standalone film. With director Gareth Edwards at the helm, new territory with a familiar feel is explored and folded into the original tale told by George Lucas in the original and second trilogy.
“Galen Erso” (Mads Mikkelsen) is being sought by “Director Orson Krennic” (Ben Mendelsohn) who plans to force him to work on the Imperial Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. Erso went into hiding after leaving Krennic’s operations with his wife “Lyra” (Valene Kane) and young daughter (Jyn) (Beau Gadsdon). Lyra is killed and Jyn hides in a prearranged place where she is ultimately rescued by “Saw Gerrera” (Forest Whittaker).
Over a dozen years later an adult “Jyn” (Felicity Jones) is a prisoner of the Empire. “Bhodi Rook” (Riz Ahmed) is an Imperial shuttle pilot who defects and reaches Saw Gerrera’s headquarters. He is carrying a message from Galen that reveals a key weakness he created in the completed Death Star that would allow for the Rebel Alliance to destroy it.
Galen is working in an Imperial facility on Eadu. The Rebellion rescues Jyn from captivity in the hope that she can get them in contact with Gerrera in order to find out where Galen is. Jyn is told that the plan is to rescue her father in order to aid the Rebellion in stopping this ultimate weapon. However, the leader of the mission to find Galen, “Cassian Andor” (Diego Luna) is ordered to shoot Galen on sight.
The Rebel council turns down the plan of Andor and Jyn to lead a raid on Scarif where the plans for the Death Star are kept on file. So they gather a group of other rebel warriors and along with Rook, “Chirrut Îmwe” (Donnie Yen), a blind monk with an unshakable faith in the Force and his friend “Baze Malbus” (Wen Jiang) and they are off to Scarif to get those plans.
Perhaps the most interesting character in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the droid “K2SO” (voided by Alan Tudyk). Formerly an Imperial droid, he was reprogrammed and is now Cassian’s sidekick. He has all of the best one-liners in the film.
Working with a film franchise that is so beloved by its legions of fans is akin to juggling four sticks of lit dynamite. The odds of it blowing up in your face are much higher than with other films. But Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) is up to the task. He weaves the indelible aerial fight sequences in with ground battles and a slew of terrific new characters in the franchise together and the result is excellent.
While “Princess Leia” had a few swashbuckler moments in the original trilogy, and George Lucas at one point had imagined a female Luke Skywalker (obviously with a different name), Felicity Jones takes the female action hero to the next level. Fearless, determined and unwilling to accept anything but completing the mission, she is by far the best of the new characters. Diego Luna is also great as the intelligence officer forced to wrestle with his conscience.
There are visual references to the original trilogy along with appearances by “Grand Moff Tarkin” and “Princess Leia” using current actors and the digitized faces of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher from back in the day. Other familiar characters can be seen and enjoyed.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a bit darker than the original films from George Lucas, but it is also a promising new direction for the franchise to move in, while we want for Star Wars: Episode VIII, due out in December of next year.