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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016 12:04 am

Rousing Rogue One a worthy Star Wars entry

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso in Rogue One.

 

I have to admit, I was skeptical where Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was concerned. As a prequel to the original film released in 1977, now referred to as Chapter IV: A New Hope, this smacked of being nothing more than a pure cash grab. After all, viewers know going in how this is going to end, so why bother with an unnecessary backstory?

Well, put a big plate of crow in front me. Of the eight feature-length films in the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One proves to be one of the best, an action-packed, dark tale of resurrection and redemption that introduces a bevy of new characters that are so strongly written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy and brought to life by an impressive cast, that they’re immediately on equal footing with favorites such as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Gorgeously rendered and built on a strong, sincere emotional foundation, the film distances itself from last year’s The Force Awakens by breaking new ground in the universe rather than retracing a familiar narrative.

More than anything, the film belongs to Felicity Jones as she brings to life a fearsome warrior in Jyn Erso, a young woman trying to escape the shadow of her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the architect of the Death Star. Having not seen him for more than a decade, she and others believe him to be dead. However, a rogue pilot delivers a message which he claims to be from Galen to rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker). In it, he reveals he’s been working at cross purposes where the Empire is concerned and has designed a flaw in the massive weapon that leaves it open to destruction. However, an important part of the message is missing, and Jyn decides she must steal the original blueprints to the Death Star, conveniently located in an Imperial stronghold, so that this flaw may be found and exploited.

Obviously, she can’t do this alone, and over the course of the film she assembles a ragtag group of warriors, each eager for a chance to redeem themselves. Among them is haunted soldier Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his scene-stealing robot sidekick K-2SO (voice by Alan Tudyk), blind Jedi Knight Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his muscle Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). This motley crew and a group of mercenaries set out to steal these plans, despite overwhelming odds.

There’s a grit to this film, both physically and thematically, that’s been missing from most of the Star Wars features. These characters have been beaten by the oppressive nature of the Empire and are on the verge of giving up. This immediately garners our sympathy, as does their willingness to go into the breach one last time. Each member of the group gets their moment in the spotlight, and you might be hard-pressed to name a favorite, they’re all so appealing. However, notice should be given to Tudyk’s delivery of K-2SO’s ironic line readings as he dryly delivers the robot’s dire news again and again to big laughs.

Those steeped in Star Wars lore will be well-pleased by Edwards and his writer’s efforts to integrate as many elements from A New Hope as possible. None of them feel forced, appearances of well-known villains develop organically from the story, as does a moment when two familiar droids pop up, as well as a brief cameo from a bad guy who ultimately ends up on the wrong end of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s light saber.

Edwards does a masterful job of creating a sense of size and scope that’s been missing from all previous entries. Long shots of ships traveling across massive planets, scenes cast against a wide swath of brutal terrain, and moments of destruction that dwarf massive cities and their inhabitants give the movie an epic feel. They also put into perspective the overwhelming odds the characters are facing and ultimately underscore the notion that the actions of a small group can have a decisive impact. In the end, that’s the message of Rogue One, one delivered in a marvelously and surprisingly entertaining manner. 

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