The things that make Rogue One a relatively good film are also some of the things that keep it from being a great film.
That may sound like faint or even damning praise, but when you sweep away the anchors that drag the film down, what remains is indeed not only good, but possibly the truest representation of war in the Star Wars franchise to date. There is an ugliness to war, a bitterness and even a brutality. Even in the accepted best of the franchise, 1980's Empire Strikes Back, while there were battles and skirmishes, it all had a very clean, very antiseptic feel to it, which is certainly fine, as most sci-fi treats their battles in such art deco fashion, but with Rogue One, we finally get a film that brings the hell to war, and to be honest, it's pretty refreshing.
Director Gareth Edwards certainly loves Star Wars, evidenced by his more than liberal peppering of more obscure flashes of the past, which can be fun, but he often threatens overkill with the nostalgia, and it isn't long before it's clear that the best parts of Rogue One deal with all that we've seen before, whether it's the appearance of Blue Milk, or CGI versions of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and Carrie Fisher as a 19-year old Princess Leia.
A number of critics came down pretty hard on Edwards for using a CGI Tarkin, with some expressing disdain at the technology, and others upset that a new actor wasn't cast in the role.
I actually didn't mind the rendered Tarkin, in fact, while it was often clear that this was CGI, there was more than enough to enjoy, because just by seeing Cushing on screen in a substantive role, Rogue One feels every bit the companion to the original Star Wars it was meant to be.
But for as much as Rogue One is meant to serve as connective tissue, we do need to talk about the "new" things, and how an opportunity to expand the SW universe ends up feeling a little too self-contained.
Felicity Jones stars as the film's main protagonist, Jyn Erso, the abandoned daughter of a scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) tasked with the completion of the first Death Star. When we meet her as a child, she's forced into hiding as her mother is killed and her father virtually kidnapped by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). When we meet Jyn again, she's in Imperial custody for reasons unknown.
Once she's freed by a group of rebels, led by Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) we head on a collision course to the planet Jedda, where Jyn is expected to coerce Saw Gererra (Forrest Whitaker) into giving her information about her father obtained by an Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed).
The plot, in and of itself isn't all that convoluted, and for Rogue One, this is all part of the plan. There's no desire towards world building here, just a straightforward exercise in showing how the Rebel Alliance obtained the plans for the Death Star. But because these are the boundaries that the film exists in, it's also clear that there was no intention to create anything lasting. Anything new in the film feels like it ONLY belongs to this film, that nothing can have a future, because there's no room for such things, and certainly no way to leave threads untied since the most immediate sequels were all made between 30 and 40 years ago.
It's because of this fact that much of Rogue One feels disposable in a way that doesn't mute the film's veracity, but it also doesn't serve us the sort of heroes' journey that would make this film a classic. Jones isn't strong enough an actor to make Jyn anything more than a means to an end, and while Luna delivers a very sharp performance, his serviceable brutality is undercut by his soft spoken nature. That his Captain Andor is as ruthless a Rebel as any officer in the Empire gives a gravity we haven't experienced with Star Wars to date, it's hard not to wonder if a stronger, more forceful actor could've sold the performance a bit better.
Because we're supposed to care the most about Jyn and Andor, their distant and sometimes wooden (at least with Jones) performances make it hard to buy into their struggle and sacrifice. The performances, however, that we can buy into come from supporting roles from Donnie Yen as a blind not-quite-a-jedi who is stronger in the force than we may know, and Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, a reprogrammed droid who offers not just comic relief, but also a new dimension into how droids are portrayed in the SW universe.
Mendelsohn does rather well as Krennic, an officer who's evil is more administrative in nature, a guy who is more concerned with making his way up the ladder than just ruling the universe, even though his major career stepping stone is a world-ending space station.
And then there's Vader.
While I have no problem having Darth Vader in Rogue One, it's hard not to wonder whether the film would've been better had he been the main antagonist. One of the biggest failings of the mystique of Vader is the fact that so much of his bonafides happened off screen. We hadn't had a real reason to fear Vader since the opening scene of A New Hope.
Because Krennic is the main villain, Vader is sparingly used, possibly too sparingly. That said, when we finally get to Vader, even briefly, the audience absolutely gets its money's worth.
All nitpicks aside, by the time we reach the end of Rogue One, it earns its place in the Star Wars canon, and while one wishes it could've been better, more immersive, and possibly a bit more heartbreaking, it is the film it's supposed to be, and it manages to close one of the largest plotholes and inconsistencies in the canon, by finally giving a logical reason as to why a porthole directly to the heart of the Death Star was so readily available.
We finally got the type of war film we wanted from Star Wars, the type many of us acted out with our toys, but sometimes getting what we want isn't always as simple or as successful as one might hope, but damn it if it isn't fun.