Rogue One: A Star Wars Story postures itself as a one-off stand alone, the first (and only?) entry in the "anthology" series versus the "saga" series where the other seven franchise films fall. Just to set the table right, Rogue One does slide into the deck seamlessly in terms of chronology, just where exactly shall remain a mystery as one of the things Disney has done with this change-up is to pack it with nuggets of surprise — so much so that they pleaded with the critical masses to not burst their bubble in their reviews, "that you as press continue to be our partners on this journey." Such requests generally go unheard as most critics are aware of their responsibility to audiences and art, but having seen the film I get it, and you will too. Though I am sure there are those out there who will spoil, I will not.
The big win for the series and fans overall when Disney took over the franchise from LucasFilms back in 2012, was the infusion of new blood and reined-in filmmaking. No disrespect to creator George Lucas, but Return of the Jedi (1983) couldn't hold a torch to the darker and meatier The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the three films in the prequel trilogy (1998-2005) were wooden and so overpacked with CGI magic, that all the character and mythos that cemented the original series got lost in a vortex of filmmaking overindulgence. The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams' 2015 initial go at the sequel series, was an admirable reboot, leveraging its ancestral roots while setting the stage for the next new adventure, even if it was too much a plot redux of A New Hope (the 1977 original that anointed and defined the blockbuster). Now comes Rogue One charging out of the gate, a breath of fresh air and more restrained in all the right places, but primarily in that it saves its best for last and is orchestrated in a way that every laser blast and saber slash bears profound impact. There's nothing indiscriminate about what's placed on screen.
As with most of these films, we begin on a desolate outpost where a farmer (Mads Mikkelsohn) quietly going about his business is intruded upon by an Imperial detachment (led by Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, the Imperial Army's director of advanced weapons research) with typical Draconian demands. Turns out Mikkelsohn's Galen Ersol has some pretty specialized knowledge that the Empire wants to harness. His wife (Valene Kane) catches a laser strike for her interference, but his daughter, Jyn Ersol, escapes and grows up into a capable rebel fighter (Felicity Jones) under the tutelage of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker almost as hirsute as he was in Battlefield Earth).
The planet-hopping quest has Jyn trying to extract a message from a turn-coat Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), catch up with daddy, and steal the master plans for the plot point that shall not be mentioned. At her side through most of it doggedly hangs Rebel Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (the dashing Diego Luna from Y Tu Mama Tambien), who also provides a spark of romantic chemistry late in the game.
Directed by Gareth Edwards (helmer of the last Godzilla reboot), the choreography of space and terrestrial conflicts is one of the more judicious and realistic to date. It really does become a big-screen immersion event that washes over you with meted-out wow. Of the potpourri of ragtag rebels, Asian action stars Donnie Yen (Ip Man) and Jiang Wen find their way into the mix as a blind Jedi with heightened senses and a fighter with a master-blaster cannon strapped to his back. Of course, there is the usual allotment of CGI-rendered aliens and a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) who has a bit of 3-CPO's snark, but isn't as indelible as the golden one or as cutely infectious as R2-D2 or BB-8, though he does add sass to every scene he's in. Jyn for that matter, isn't quite the spitfire that Rey was in Force Awakens though they feel strangely akin, sisters perhaps separated by space and time.
As for how it stacks up against the other Star Wars films, Rogue One is above the line, even if the franchise feels like it needs a redress to get beyond the style shackles of the '70s and the '80s. It's an enthralling go with little pops of surprise and revelation that are nostalgically pleasing. For the next chapter, we go back to the future with the as-of-yet untitled sequel series entry Star Wars VIII.