Last week, after movie critics got their first look at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The New York Times noticed a disturbance in the Force. While the majority of the resulting reviews were positive, there were exceptions—words like "mediocre" and "overcooked" crept into some articles. Since then, similar sentiments have appeared on Twitter, and though the film review website Rotten Tomatoes tallies critics' overall assessments as 84 percent fresh, there are detractors.
While I sympathize with these dissenting reviewers' takes, I thought Rogue One was great. But that may be because I didn't go into the theater expecting an expansive new addition to the Star Wars franchise. Instead, I embraced it as comfort food—a story line that fits into a larger sequence of Star Wars events I know quite well.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Rogue One has to operate within a lot of constraints. First and foremost, it exists within the same Star Wars universe established by the first seven movies. In a galaxy far, far away, a collection of Earthlike planets host various intelligent humanoid, mammalian and avian species of all shapes and sizes. Travel between these worlds takes place in faster-than-light starships. There are anthropomorphic droids possessing impressive strength and mental capacity while ultimately remaining subservient to their creators. The planets form governments and alliances derivative of those from our history books, and most of the series' conflicts involve struggles between democratic and authoritarian regimes.
Not only is Rogue One set in a predefined universe, it also has to conform to a specific time period. The film takes place just before Episode IV: A New Hope, the original Star Wars film released in 1977. To summarize Grand Moff Tarkin from A New Hope, the setting is a galaxy in which the remnants of an old republic are being swept away by a classic evil empire, where fear—particularly, fear of a moon-sized superweapon called the Death Star—keeps the local systems in line.
If you've seen the other Star Wars films, it isn't hard to guess what Rogue One is all about: You're going to learn how the fledgling rebel alliance steals the blueprints to the Death Star. Those plans become the entire focal point of A New Hope, in which the rebels use the plans to exploit a weakness in the Death Star's defenses.
The Death Star moves into position
All of this makes Rogue One the most constrained Star Wars film to date. To tell the story properly, the creators had to tick off a number of milestones: We needed to find out how the rebels got wind of the Death Star in the first place, why there was such a glaring weakness in its defenses, how the plot to steal the plans was hatched, how the plans were stolen, and how they eventually found their way to Princess Leia, who is a passenger aboard an outgunned starship fleeing an Imperial destroyer in the opening scene of A New Hope.
The fact that the filmmakers accomplish all of this while presenting a cohesive, new narrative is impressive. The protagonist of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (played superbly by Felicity Jones), whose father is a brilliant engineer forced to build the Death Star for the Empire. Erso's father is taken from her when she is a child. Years later, she joins a band of rebels hoping to track her father down to collect intelligence on the Death Star. They learn he intentionally built a vulnerability into the Death Star that can be exploited, if the rebels are able to steal a copy of the superweapon's blueprints.
Director Gareth Edwards is able to breathe some significant life into the story by placing the action in some stunningly expansive settings. A scene in which Erso is still a child takes place among thick, green grass planted on what looks like volcanic ash, under foreboding dark skies. The Death Star's plans are held at a facility located on a tropical beach that seems more suited for a resort than an Imperial stronghold. We also get to see the Death Star like never before, rising through the edge of a planetary atmosphere, and orienting itself upside-down to properly aim its firepower.
Many of Rogue One's negative reviews seize on the fact that the film blatantly panders to Star Wars fans with nostalgic cues, which, to borrow a word I've seen used elsewhere, tend to elicit a Pavlonian response: Look—a quick cameo from C-3PO and R2-D2! The two ruffians from A New Hope's Cantina scene! A physical version of the Millenium Falcon's chess game!
I submit that the only real problem with all this nostalgia may be its timing. Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which was released last year, dips generously into this same pot of wistfulness. The crew currently making Episode VIII would be well-advised to keep the throwback references to a minimum. (May I recommend: No more climaxes involving one-in-a-million torpedo shots, the disabling of shield generators, or both?)
The New York Times' own review says "Millions of people will sit through this thoroughly mediocre movie [...] and convince themselves that it’s perfectly delightful."
While I think "mediocre" is a stretch, the film is certainly not without its flaws. I thought one of the main Darth Vader scenes was a bit of a miss, mostly because Vader utters the cringe-worthy zinger, "Don't choke on your ambitions." (Because he chokes people with the Force—get it?) I also felt Erso's transformation from apolitical bystander to rebel leader was a little rushed. The movie had to rely heavily on the power of The Big Motivational Speech, when some more nuance and uncertainty might have played better.
There's also a debate raging about the CGI inclusion of Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994. I can't quite decide how I feel about the ethics of this move, but I will say that I thought it was quite convincing. However, I did see the movie in 3D, where everything tends to look a bit distorted and larger than life. (Maybe I'll feel differently when I see Tarkin in my living room after the movie is digitally released.) Princess Leia, or rather, Carrie Fisher's 1977 Princess Leia, also makes a brief computerized appearance.
If you walk into Rogue One as an earnest Star Wars fan looking for a fun galactic romp, you'll leave happy. Enjoy the backstory of how the "rebel scum" that later orchestrate the Empire's downfall get their start. Gawk at seeing bleach-white Star Destroyers floating alongside the Death Star as its weapons dish is snapped into place. And let your heart leap when Princess Leia, hair in her classic cinnamon roll buns, takes possession of the stolen plans with a smile and declares the rebels now have hope.