Not so long ago, in a galaxy right here, the Star Wars pictures stopped being movies and became episodes in the Gospel according to St. George Lucas. Star Wars ceased being Star Wars and became Episode IV: A New Hope; anyone who insisted on referring to it by its former (i.e., “real”) title risked being condemned as an apostate.
I don’t like to criticize anybody’s religion, so let’s just say that true believers will find Rogue One: A Star Wars Story satisfactory. It doesn’t have the revelatory impact of the first movie, and it never approaches the ecstatic peak of The Empire Strikes Back. Nor does it deliver the joy of rediscovery that J.J. Abrams brought to last year’s The Force Awakens (after three dreary episodes from Lucas). In fact, this new installment (call it Episode 3.99, since it ends approximately 45 minutes before Star Wars begins) is pretty much routine. But for the faithful, “routine” will be plenty good enough.
Alfred Hitchcock’s movies used to have a “MacGuffin”—papers, microfilm, secret formula, whatever—something everybody was after, and on which the picture’s suspense set-pieces could be hung. The MacGuffin here has to do with the Death Star, which is almost ready to be deployed against the Rebel Alliance. First, it’s Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the Rebel turncoat who is building it; to locate him and bring him back to testify before the Rebel Senate, the Alliance enlists his daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones). Accompanying her is Capt. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); unbeknownst to Jyn, his orders are not to bring Erso in but to kill him on sight. Thus Jyn and Cassian are at cross-purposes from the start, although only he knows it.
Midway, the MacGuffin switches from the Death Star’s creator to its blueprints, plans revealing the weak point at which the Star can be destroyed. To find and steal these plans, Jyn and Cassian form Rogue One, a volunteer commando team, sort of The Dirty Dozen in space. That opens the door to plenty of action. (For the record, Imperial Stormtroopers still can’t fight worth beans—their aim stinks, and they can’t even get the best of a blind man with a stick, played by Donnie Yen).
Director Gareth Edwards keeps things moving well enough to meet the modest needs of the script (by Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll and Gary Whitta). Individual characters make little impression, but as things turn out (semi-spoiler alert!) that doesn’t really matter.
Actually, one character does register strongly: Governor Grand Moff Tarkin, who died on the Death Star—and was played in 1977 by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994. For Rogue One Tarkin is back and so is Cushing, courtesy of CGI; if memory serves, he has even more screen time here than he did the first time around.
Is this a dry run for a return of the late Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi somewhere down the line? Maybe. In any case, it means the most interesting performance in Rogue One is given by an actor who’s been dead for 22 years.