If the phrase “prequel” when attached to “Star Wars” still fills you with Phantom Menace trepidation, allow me to put your mind at rest. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story does its legacy proud with dazzling effects and slam-bang action, but adds hints of ambiguity and complexity to its space-opera flash.
Charismatic, cutthroat rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna—imagine Luke Skywalker’s ideals with Lando Calrissian’s morals) is leading an effort to find out the nature of the Empire’s new weapon. A rumor about a set of plans that may help destroy it leads him to criminal-with-a-backstory Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who could care less. “You can stand to see the Imperial flag reign across the galaxy?” he asks her. “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up,” she responds. But when Erso does look up and finally sees the bombs falling, she joins a renegade group attempting to seize the key to stopping the Death Star.
The movie is full of drop-your-popcorn chase scenes and cheer-inducing fight sequences, but there’s also a distinct darkness to Rogue One: It makes The Empire Strikes Back look like Return of the Jedi. Rebellion is not easy or fair—the ragtag crew struggling against the Empire takes diversity into a new galaxy (literally), everyone needs a bath and many have done things they’re “not proud of” in service of the greater good.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story also shows the flaws in the big forces at work: The Alliance squabbles over the “right” ways to fight back and even considers surrender, but the Empire has its own problems with toadying and backstabbing. A CGI Peter Cushing returns as Grand Moff Tarkin—two decades dead and still the chilliest motherfucker in the galaxy, though Ben Mendelsohn as his right-hand fascist gives a few icy sneers of his own. Aside from mandatory Vader, there are also two other quick cameos from the O.G. Star Wars—one obvious, one that’ll only be caught by the real heads.
Perhaps the most compelling figure in Rogue One is Hong Kong action legend Donnie Yen as a blind priest and last believer in the Force—the scene where he takes out a legion of Stormtroopers with just his staff and skills is a standout and a mitzvah to all of us who fantasized of a Lucasfilm/Shaw Brothers Studio collaboration. Yen’s sidekick is a mountainous Wen Jiang, who contributes dry humor and heavy firepower. These two have great chemistry and kick epic ass: Give them another prequel!
Rogue One is a rollicking good time at the movies, but it also carries the reminder that, when people choose to die on their feet, rather than live on their knees, some will suffer the former fate. But, as they say in the Alliance, “rebellions are built on hope.”