Over the years, pop culture has raised scores of burning questions for future generations, among them: Why was there a pail of water in the corridor of the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle? (A half-century on, Wicked offered one patently bogus theory.) Why did the Howells bring so much luggage for a three-hour tour? (Crickets on that.) More recently: Why did the Death Star, the most powerful attack weapon in the history of that far-far-away galaxy, have a little nook where a well-placed bomb could make the whole thing go boom? Now, there’s a mammoth movie devoted to that very question. It’s called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and it turns out that said nook was no accident and that many rebels and Empire storm troopers had to perish on the way to the immortal holograph that began, “Help me, Obi-Wan!”
Obi-Wan would have been amazed if he’d known what it took. So, I suspect, would George Lucas, though he should be reasonably pleased. At the opening of the last Star Wars picture, he murmured words to the effect that the fans would like it, but it was clear he was clenching his sphincter. At least this one — a stand-alone, sans Roman numeral — doesn’t rehash the plot of what’s now known as Episode IV: A New Hope. Instead, it rehashes the plots of about a thousand World War II and/or Western films in which a brave squadron — a Magnificent Seven, a Dirty Dozen, a Force Five — prepares to sacrifice itself in the name of a greater cause. The rebels are a well-honed if motley group: multi-sexed, multi-racial, multi-species. There’s even a blind samurai. That said, Lucas’s was a boys’ universe. This battle is led by a girl.
Her name is Jyn Erso and she’s played by the British actress Felicity Jones. It’s not Jones’s finest hour (it’s not her finest dialogue), but her casting is inspired: She’s ravishingly pretty with unearthly blue eyes and a touch of baby fat in her cheeks that recalls Carrie Fisher. Jyn is the daughter of the brilliant Empire scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who, before the events of the film, had an attack of conscience and fled, hiding out with his wife and young daughter as a farmer on a distant moon. Perhaps what tipped off his Empire nemesis, Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), is the unlikelihood of even the hardiest Bedouin attempting to farm that particular arid stretch of land. In any case, little Jyn ends up separated from her parents and goes to live with a Rebel fighter named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). When we next meet her, she has ditched galactic politics for a transient existence as a smuggler and, at the moment, a convict in an Empire prison. And then ...
Here I must move with caution and a bit of uncertainty. I still have PTSD from the emails in response to my discreet, downright gentlemanly review of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. “Thanks for the spoiler warning on your movie review. I really appreciated it. Dumb ass,” read one. And, “How does it feel to be the second most-hated man in America right now? Fuck you for giving away The Force Awakens spoilers with no warning in your hackneyed, ill-thought-out, bullshit review.” In the first place, I still don’t know who the most-hated man in America was and wish we could have commiserated. Second, What fucking spoilers, asshole? How can you talk about a movie — any movie — without engaging on some level with its basic premise?
So here goes, well, next to nothing. The film is set between episodes III and IV, when the Empire is building the Death Star, an effective weapon for wiping out rebel bases insofar as the fascists don’t have to do any pesky searching around. They can just blow up the whole planet. Galen Erso was the weapon’s principal creator, but he has [redacted]. So the Rebels break Jyn out of prison to convince her to [redacted]. Along for the mission is Cassian Andor, who sounded French to me — perhaps because, in an early scene, he coolly executed a wounded comrade in the manner of French Resistance fighters of yore — but is actually played by the Mexican actor Diego Luna. Although nominally Jyn’s partner, the rebel leaders have ordered Cassian to [redacted]. You can imagine the [redacted] and [redacted]. It’s positively [redacted].
Any Star Wars property requires a funny robot and someone large and hairy. This robot is a tall, reprogrammed Imperial droid called K2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk in a prissy-Brit voice. The gag is that K2SO is a total bitch. I mean, total. Wen Jiang is the hairy one, Baze Malbus, though not a Wookie. The amazing Riz Ahmed (of The Night Of) is an Empire pilot who has apparently defected with [redacted]. I’m bound to say this is easily the hippest multinational cast of any Star Wars picture. Ahmed and Mendelsohn have given two of the best TV performances I’ve ever seen (the latter in Bloodline), Mikkelsen isn’t far behind, Luna made his name with Y Tu Mama También and other art house hits, Whitaker is always a treat, and the Hammer Films legend Peter Cushing is back as the Grand Moff Tarkin. Fancy that, since Cushing has been dead for a couple of decades. Movies can do anything now. (See below for a further assessment.)
The director, Gareth Edwards, did a respectable job with the Godzilla remake, in part by making sure that the big lizard didn’t wear out his welcome, and he does his best in Rogue One to keep the story on track. But the first half of the movie still skips all over the place, to the point where I was wondering how people would even sit still if they weren’t so heavily invested in this particular mythos. (The screenplay — not the story — is credited to heavy hitters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, but if they were the ones who cleaned it up I’d hate to see what they started with.) The action scenes are loud and bright but there’s no art to them. Scores of Storm Troopers get blasted and pitch forward on cue, as casually mowed down as in any video game. The timing is off, too, with shots that should have been snipped off a few beats earlier but presumably weren’t because the special effects were too expensive to leave on the cutting-room floor. Some of those effects feel fresh, though, and some of the settings of rebel camps and nearby marketplaces are a little too fresh — like Afghanistan or Iraq right now, where men prepare to take on the U.S. colossus, which is their idea of the Empire.
I found the first two-thirds of Rogue One pretty bad, but I have to admit that the last part caught me up and left the preview audience jazzed. The problem with these “franchise” films is that because of the need for more, more, and yet more installments, nothing ever seems wrapped up. But this one arrives at a familiar place and things get pretty well-settled. The final battle is still a bit of a hash but each character gets his or her big moment, and the scale of the thing is a wow no matter how jaded you are. The movie didn’t rekindle the thrill of seeing, say, The Empire Strikes Back, but Rogue One will loom pretty large in the Star Wars galaxy — if only because there’s so little competition.
Now, about Cushing: His head is computer-generated, with vaguely Polar Express skin and an impressionist doing his voice. I suppose some people won’t mind. I do. Cushing remains one of my favorite actors and the excitement of seeing him again onscreen in any form quickly turned to disgust. The thing about Cushing is that he was a gentle soul (much beloved), and that even playing a cold, clipped villain like Tarkin he had a mellifluous, caressing voice that lifted the character out of the realm of stock villainy. Whoever did the impression got some of the vocal mannerisms right but not that essential one. So Cushing has come back from the dead as a sneering, third-rate villain. Even his Baron Frankenstein would have been horrified by this kind of grave-robbing. And you can bet it’s a sign of things to come. I’m already scared that, as I write this, some Alec Guinness impersonator is clearing his throat.