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'Rogue One': The Force Will Be With Those Who Love Battle Scenes

Dec 15, 2016
Originally published on December 16, 2016 10:49 am

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — a slightly longer time ago, actually, than usual — there's a little girl named Jyn. She has a dad who was an important cog in the Empire's war machine until he went on the lam. As Rogue One starts, his Imperial overlord (Ben Mendelsohn, sneering up a dust storm) has caught up with him, and it's Jyn who must go on the lam.

Flash forward a few years. Jyn, now played by a steely Felicity Jones, has been in hiding for a decade or so, and has grown to be a rebellious young woman, sought by a ragtag band of rebels who have news of the father who has missed most of her childhood.

"He's critical," she's told by a rebel leader when they finally catch her, "to the development of a super weapon."

A planet-killing super weapon you may have heard of: the Death Star.

"If my father built this thing, we need to find him," Jyn replies, and that turns out to be exactly what the rebel forces had in mind, though not with quite the same aim as this doting daughter.

You won't get more plot than that from me, because plot is the chief attraction in Rogue One. With Stormtroopers lurking 'round every intergalactic corner, director Gareth Edwards hasn't much time for such other Star Warsian charms as character, grace, whimsy and, most of all, fun. He does like to linger over battles, although I can't say their outcomes are ever much in doubt, the fears of a pessimistic droid (voiced indispensably by Alan Tudyk) notwithstanding.

We've been here before, and will doubtless go here again, probably with more imagination, and hopefully with more seeming to ride on the outcome. Rogue One is allegedly a standalone story, but it's also a prequel, tied so tightly to the stories we've already heard that most 9-year-olds will be able to tell those nervous Nellies in the rebel alliance how it's all going to come out, even before Jyn delivers the script's flatfooted version of a St. Crispin's Day speech.

"The time to fight is now," she keens, to a notably unreceptive crowd.

The place to fight, it should be noted, is all over the intergalactic map. So many planets, rebel hideouts, obscure moons and imperial bases get name-checked in the first few minutes that I figured I must've forgotten to do a homework assignment. Someone (I think it was Forest Whitaker's seemingly rebuilt-from-spare-parts rebel fanatic) tells Jyn "we have a long road ahead of us," and by about the sixth shoot-em-up on a different moon, it's clear he's not kidding.

With all the aerial dogfights, armored combat vehicles, grenades, flame-throwers and snipers, Rogue One feels like a film for those who think that most Star Wars movies are insufficiently like World War II flicks. Or maybe that they should more closely resemble computer games.

Either way though, the film doesn't make much use of the talents of a whole raft of heavyweights (besides Whitaker, there's Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Ben Daniels), and an appealing lightweight or two — notably Diego Luna as a handler for (and eventual disciple of) Jyn. And it squanders them while not only not being distinctive, but also while seeming to go out of its way not to be distinctive. Rogue One knows its place: It's a placeholder — a way for the Disney organization not merely to monetize but to annualize a franchise that used to have a three-year gap between movies.

Disney has tightened that to two years for the current trilogy, and it's filling in the off years with — well, with filler. Rogue One brings a few digitally resurrected characters from the first Lucas trilogy along for the ride, and features a blind monk who trusts the Force — just enough to remind you that you're watching a movie with a brand. Presumably next year, with the release of the as-yet-untitled Episode VIII — a "real" Star Wars installment (whatever that means these days) — the brand will get the requisite reinforcement.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" opens tomorrow across the nation. In Hollywood parlance, tomorrow actually means tonight after 7 p.m. So with millions of tickets already sold, "Rogue One" reviews may be irrelevant. But our critic Bob Mondello has one just the same.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - a slightly longer time ago than usual actually - there's a little girl named Jyn. She has a dad who was an important cog in the Empire's war machine until he went on the lam. As the movie starts, his Imperial overlords have caught up with him, so he's saying goodbye to his daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

MADS MIKKELSEN: (As Galen Erso) Jyn, whatever I do, I do it to protect you. Say you understand.

BEAU GADSDON: (As Young Jyn) I understand.

MONDELLO: Flash forward a few years. Jyn's been in hiding and is now a rebellious young woman sought by a ragtag band of rebels who have news of the father who's missed most of her childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

FELICITY JONES: (As Jyn Erso) It appears he's critical to the development of a superweapon.

MONDELLO: A planet killer you may have heard of - the Death Star.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

JONES: (As Jyn Erso) If my father built this thing, we need to find him.

MONDELLO: Exactly what the Rebel forces had in mind though not with quite the same aim as Jyn. That's probably all the plot I should reveal since plot is the chief attraction in "Rogue One."

With stormtroopers lurking 'round every intergalactic corner, director Gareth Edwards hasn't much time for character, grace or whimsy. He does like to linger over battles, though I can't say their outcomes are ever much in doubt, a pessimistic droid's fears notwithstanding.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

ALAN TUDYK: (As K-2SO) There's a 26 percent chance of failure.

DIEGO LUNA: (As Cassian Andor) How much further?

RIZ AHMED: (As Bodhi Rook) I don't know. I'm not sure. I never really come this way. We're close. We're close. I know that.

TUDYK: (As K-2SO) Well, now there's a 35 percent chance of failure.

MONDELLO: We've been here before and will doubtless go here again, probably with more imagination and hopefully with more seeming to ride on the outcome. This is allegedly a stand-alone story, but it's also a prequel tied so tightly to the stories we've already heard that most 9-year-olds will be able to tell those nervous nellies in the Rebel Alliance how it's all going to come out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

JONES: (As Jyn Erso) If the Empire has this kind of power, what chance do we have? What chance do we have? The question is, what choice? Run; hide; plead for mercy; scatter your forces. You give way to an enemy this evil with this much power, and you condemn the galaxy to an eternity of submission. The time to fight is now.

MONDELLO: And the place to fight is all over the intergalactic map. So many planets and imperial bases get name-checked in the first few minutes that I figured I must've forgotten a homework assignment. Someone tells Jyn, we have a long road ahead of us. And by about the sixth shoot-'em-up on a different moon, it's clear he's not kidding.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

AHMED: (As Bodhi Rook) Stay in the canyon. Keep it low.

MONDELLO: With all the aerial dogfights, armored combat vehicles, grenades, flamethrowers and snipers, "Rogue One" feels like a film for those who think "Star Wars" movies should be more like World War II flicks or maybe more like computer games.

Either way, though, it's not only not distinctive. It seems to be going out of its way not to be distinctive. "Rogue One" knows its place - placeholder, a way for the Disney organization not just to monetize but to annualize a franchise that used to have a three-year gap between movies. They've tightened that to two years for the current trilogy. And they're filling in with - well, with filler. "Rogue One" brings a few digitally-resurrected characters from the first trilogy along for the ride and a blind monk who trusts the Force...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

DONNIE YEN: (As Chirrut Imwe) All is as the Force wills it.

MONDELLO: ...Just enough to remind you that you're watching a movie with a brand. Presumably next year with the release of "Episode 8," a real "Star Wars" installment - whatever that means these days - the brand will get the requisite reinforcements. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.