The case against Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens boils down to its plot, a retread of the original Star Wars Death Star storyline. While I was more than willing to go with it, as it it does execute well (plus, as I mentioned at the time, it does "rhyme" with the original trilogy much better than the prequels), I do certainly feel like that plot point is getting a bit tired. Enter Rogue One, the first in a series of one-off "Star Wars Stories" that will be injected between the numbered outings. Once again, we're focused on a Death Star plot... but this isn't really a retread. It tells the story of how the Rebels managed to snag the original Death Star's plans (and how they so quickly found its weakness). Spoilers aho!
As a child, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) sees her mother killed and father, genius scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), suborned by the Empire to complete the construction of some sort of mysterious superweapon (that we immediately know is the original Death Star). Jyn manages to escape and is rescued and raised by a splinter rebel faction led by Saw Guerrera (Forest Whitaker). Jump ahead a few years and Jyn is imprisoned by the Empire, though they luckily do not know her true identity. She is rescued by the Rebel Alliance, who needs her connections to that splinter faction, as they've captured a defector claiming to have a message from Galen Erso. At first reluctant, Jyn gets onboard and builds a team of rebels, including the spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a reprogrammed Empire droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a Zatoichi-like blind martial artist who is clearly not a Jedi named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and his machine-gun wielding friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Together they must find the Death Star plans and deliver them to the Rebel Alliance. Along the way, they are opposed by Empire apparatchik Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and his bosses, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin.
Phew. Everybody get that? For a general plot that is very simple at its core, they've certainly amped up the moving parts to imply complexity. Tons of new characters, lots of new planets, backstories, subplots, and so on. It's a bit overstuffed and perhaps not every arc is completely earned, but they managed to pull it off, even if it sometimes feels a bit perfunctory. Still, for a movie that is technically a prequel where you know how it's going to end up, this does a remarkably good job inserting itself into the series without distracting from the originals. This is a movie that engages and enriches the original. It doesn't just retread things we already know or fill holes, it adds something meaningful to the series. It's probably one of the better prequels ever made.
I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that almost all of these characters are new and relatively interesting. We recognize many side characters, but the core is all new and unknown to us. Again, we don't necessarily get to spend enough time with each character's backstory or subplot to completely earn the payoff, but it's still a payoff. There are some standouts, namely Alan Tudyk's voice acting for K-2SO, who gets a couple of great lines. I liked the idea of Forest Whitaker's cave-dwelling terrorist gone half-mad with paranoia and yet, being on the "right side" of Star Wars history. Similarly, Diego Luna does some good work with his tortured spy who's seen and done horrible things. Felicity Jones does well in the lead role, and once her character buys in, she displays enough charisma to get by. Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang make for a good team and are total badasses. The problem is, again, not enough time to really flesh out these characters, making the movie feel a bit overstuffed.
This movie is a little more consistent and even though, so we don't quite get anything as great as BB-8 giving the flaming thumbs up in VIII, for instance, but we also don't get as many head-scratchers (how exactly does Starkiller base work?) Ultimately, we care about the characters and they're fun to be around, even if they don't really go above and beyond in that respect (i.e. we're just not given any reasons to really dislike the characters, which is a trap that they could have easily fallen into). The plot is simple, but it does add some interesting retcons that actually enhance the series (namely, why the Death Star is so vulnerable).
Visually, it's a very impressive movie. Director Gareth Edwards seems to be good at that, and his action chops are up to par as well. I really enjoyed the action here, and the set pieces were varied enough that it never becomes repetitious or tedious. Edwards isn't as great with story, but what's here is light years beyond Godzilla or Monsters.
Also distressing, especially given Edwards visual effects background, is the baffling choice to use CGI models for Grand Moff Tarkin (and one other character that shall remain nameless). This is something that has kinda worked in other movies (see Marvel's use in Ant-Man and Civil War, though in both cases, what you're seeing is younger versions of living actors - I guess the tech isn't quite there for actors who have passed long ago...), but fails pretty miserably here. Individual moments or stills might work fine, but added up, the CGI never quite clears the uncanny valley. They get pretty far across... only to faceplant on the far edge of the valley... It becomes even more baffling given that they were able to cast some pretty great lookalikes (at least, close enough) for some of the other side characters, like Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly). O'Reilly played Mon Mothma in Episode III, which is interesting because that movie also features Wayne Pygram as Tarkin... and that looked fine!
Finally, I think they managed to pull off the darker, grittier vibe they were pulling for without distracting from its Star-Warsian nature, but once again, they don't really have enough time to really nail these themes down. They walk the line well, though it would be nice, just once, for someone to say that a sequel or prequel will be "brighter and more fun" rather than "darker and grittier".
So I'd call this movie a success. It's not perfect, but most of my criticisms are relatively minor. That being said, let's maybe lay off the Death Star focused storylines from now on, shall we? Maybe it's just because there've been sooo many sequels in 2016 that failed so completely at this, but Rogue One walked a narrow tightrope on this movie and got to the other side. In general though, this fits well with the series. The original trilogy still resonates most with me, but I'd put Rogue One at least on par with VII, if not better. It's certainly a massive improvement over the prequels, that's for sure. I'm looking forward to more "Star Wars Stories", and am obviously excited for VIII. We live in bountiful times for nerdy pursuits, which makes me happy.