Star Wars is as much about cynical cash-ins as lightsabers and droids. Since the early days of the franchise, its producers have treated the rich universe they created as an infinite wellspring of merchandising opportunities, television and video game spinoffs and licensing rights. Half of the eight films in the series are, more or less, children's movies—a wise choice when every new character means a new action figure and a new T-shirt. In a year when two lackluster Marvel films generated close to $1.8 billion, there's little reason to attempt to go artsy with a guaranteed blockbuster.
Which is to say, no one would have been surprised if Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first of two "anthology" films to exist outside of the series' main saga, joined the ranks of The Phantom Menace and The Star Wars Holiday Special at the bottom of the sarlacc pit. Instead, the relatively unknown Gareth Edwards, director behind the 2014 American reboot of Godzilla and the 2010 micro-budgeted indie sci-fi Monsters, treats us to the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.
Taking place some time after the conclusion of Episode III, Rogue One opens on a triangular spaceship landing outside a farm on a remote planet. Out steps white-cloaked Director of Advanced Weapons Research Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a not quite upper manager in the now ascendant Galactic Empire, and his cadre of black-clad stormtroopers. He's there to return Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a senior scientist who defected from working on an Empire superweapon, back into the fold. But not before killing Galen's wife and sending his young daughter, Jyn Erso, into hiding, later to be rescued and recruited by anti-Empire extremist—er, terrorist or, uh, freedom fighter—Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
Years later, a grown-up Jyn (Felicity Jones) is broken out of an Empire prison convoy by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Their mission is to find Saw, now holed up on a desert planet, who's rumored to have received word from Galen about the key to destroying the Empire superweapon by finding its schematics, hidden at an unknown Empire base.
From the film's first shot and the absence of John Williams' bombastic score, it is apparent that Rogue One is not going to be a romp through a galaxy of heroic Jedi and villainous Sith. Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser paint this universe in swaths of charcoal gray and rust, a fitting palette for a film that is more war movie than sci-fi epic. The film's battles don't play out as duels between lightsaber-wielding psychic knights, but as gun and grenade skirmishes between rebels and Empire soldiers.
Rogue One is not only surprisingly violent for Star Wars, but surprisingly violent for a film with a PG-13 rating. A battle between Saw's insurgents and Empire troops in a crowded market is shocking in its ferocity, closer to Black Hawk Down than Guardians of the Galaxy as a screaming child emerges from the chaos of the ambush, while the film's colossal third act is a planet-spanning battle worthy of Band of Brothers.
All of which is patiently captured by Fraser, who not only gives Rogue One's battles much-needed room to breathe, but focuses on the film's characters in quiet moments, telling more about the ample cast with a sliver of light or lingering gaze than the film could with a page of dialogue.
It helps that the performances in this film are among the best the franchise has seen. This isn't a film of supermen. It's one of everyday people trying to justify, morally and practically, their roles in the struggles against an overwhelming, evil adversary. Jones brings a powerful, wounded pragmatism to Jyn, which puts her at odds with Luna's Cassian, portrayed with the harsh idealism of someone caught in strife since childhood.
As K-2SO, Tudyk is the best comic relief in Star Wars since Chewbacca, delivering matter-of-fact pronouncements about the character's' predicament with a mix of deadpan and slapstick that lands almost every time. But most impressive is Mendelsohn's Director Krennic, who subtly portrays his character not as an arch-evil ubermensch but as a compromised bureaucrat who, although not quite forced into acting above his evil pay grade, is clearly out of his depth when it comes to the true scope of his actions.
Rogue One is the first Star Wars film in over 30 years that is more for adults than children, one about everyday people contextualizing their role in the struggle to make a dark world a better place. It brings a moral depth to the series that allows you to feel a pang of empathy when one of the film's heroes guns down a squadron of stormtroopers with what looks like a laser assault rifle connected to a Shop-Vac. This is Star Wars at its most human, and its best.
Critic's Rating: A
SEE IT: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Bagdad, Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Lloyd, Moreland, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Roseway, St. Johns Twin Cinema & Pub, Tigard, Vancouver.