It’s clear that “Rogue One” — the first of the spinoff “Star Wars Stories” outside the mainline narrative — is a great “Star Wars” film when it bursts into action from the opening “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and never lets up. That, of course, was part of what made the original “Star Wars” such a thrill when it debuted in 1977. That film, since subtitled “A New Hope,” was a buoyant, rollicking adventure. This new film — set in the days, the minutes leading up to “A New Hope” — is darker, grimmer, bloodier.
A military prison truck rumbles across mud and snow toward a forced-labor camp. Rebels blast off the door to free a woman inside by the name of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). When she was just a girl, her mother was murdered by the rebels’ enemy, the brutally repressive Empire; her father was arrested; and she was left alone, to grow up a fierce fighter, cynical about noble causes, haunted by abandonment issues.
The rebels take her back to their base on a jungle moon. The Empire is rumored to be building a “planet-killer” weapon. And her dad is said to be helping engineer the thing. They make Erso an offer she can’t refuse: Use your contacts in the underground to help us get to your father.
British director Gareth Edwards — creator of the 2010 alien invasion art film “Monsters” and 2014’s “Godzilla” reboot — and his team have created a sensational action flick, populated by intriguing new characters like a defecting pilot, a veteran underground leader, and (especially) a blind warrior monk who strides through laser fire chanting, "I'm with the Force and the Force is with me." Though because it’s an action film at times the characters lack substance, motivations can feel thin and the enemy has a curious habit of installing vital on-off switches right out in the open.
“Rogue One” is set in that most alluring of “Star Wars” settings: At the Wild West edges of the Empire, dirty, worn-out, jury-rigged, oppressed. The Empire’s urban patrols evoke American troops rumbling armored vehicles through the warrens of Fallujah; underground fighters resemble Afghanistan’s Mujahideen.
Like the current “Star Wars Rebels” animated television series — but better — “Rogue One” understands the drama in the early stages of the rebellion, when the alliance is small and fragile, when it is desperately recruiting, when the Empire feels overwhelming, when victory is always in doubt.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” a sardonic droid warns as it sneaks behind enemy lines with Erso and a cold-blooded rebel spy named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). That dialogue is one of the film’s call-outs to classic “Star Wars” characters and moments. TIE fighters scrap with X-wings. The “planet-killer” artificial moon, the Death Star, looms menacingly and invincible. The legendary Empire villain Darth Vader is a monster shadow eclipsing all around him, his mechanical breathing rasping from the darkness to panic his enemies. With his glowing red lightsaber in hand, he’s a ruthless, relentless force of nature. As he should be.
We know where all this is going — as the opening, introductory crawl to the original 1977 film read: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy.” The question of “Rogue One” is: How did we get there?
Edwards’ answer is a heist film — part “Ocean’s Eleven,” part “The Dirty Dozen,” with bloody dashes of “Saving Private Ryan,” “Black Hawk Down” and the “Bourne” series. A rag-tag band of outlaws, spies and misfits (who definitely shoot first), sensitively portrayed by a rainbow coalition of actors (English, Mexican, Chinese, African-American, Pakistani-British, European-American), disobeys orders so they can infiltrate an Empire base to steal plans for the Death Star. So the rebels in “New Hope” can find its weakness and blast it to smithereens.
It’s hard to get historical perspective based on a single viewing, but in quality and verve “Rogue One” feels up there with the original “Star Wars” film and 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s considerably better than last year’s J.J. Abrams-helmed “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — because for all that movie’s fun, it was a rehash of the first films, it got bogged down in the Vader-Luke-Leia family melodrama, and it got the emotions wrong.
One of the biggest failings of “The Force Awakens” was that when Han Solo — one of the most iconic of American folk characters, played by Harrison Ford, one of the nation’s most famous actors — died, he died in a stupid way, and then the film didn’t pause to let us feel this great loss. Here, Edwards and his team get us to feel the losses. As they mount on the ground and in an epic space battle soaring above the planet, we feel the cost of the rebellion, and how dearly the victories are earned.