Many of the recent comic-book and video-game adaptations have been defended with, “Well, it’s for the fans,” as though a) major movies are (or should be) designed with only the pre-existing audience in mind, and b) simultaneously pleasing fans and entertaining newbies was somehow impossible. (I enjoyed seeing the big window on Dr. Strange’s Greenwich Village crash-pad as much as the next comics reader, but that’s not all the movie had to offer.)
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is for the fans, all right, but in that expression’s worst way. Unless you’re thrilled by the idea of 133 minutes of sideways mentions, shout-outs and straight-up references to the original “Star Wars” (or “Episode IV: A New Hope,” for those born after 1977), there’s not nearly enough excitement going on here, much less character, plot or story. A direct prequel to “A New Hope” — it’s the story of how those blueprints for the Death Star got snuck out and into the hands of the Rebel Alliance — this is less a movie than it is an epic of fan-fiction, laden with “Easter eggs” that super-devotees can congratulate themselves for finding.
Viewers who had a problem with “The Force Awakens” for having too many callbacks to the original trilogy without creating enough new mythos of its own — look on any message board and you’ll still find them complaining vigorously — will find this go-round even more exasperating. And even if you’ve seen and liked the films but perhaps never read any of the novels or watched any of the Blu-ray extras, you may still find yourself underwhelmed.
(And if you are the sort who wants to go into this movie knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, stop reading now.)
Our protagonist this time is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones); we see her as a child in flashback, violently separated from her father, weapons designer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been dragooned by Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to create the terrifying Death Star for the Empire. Young Jyn was raised by Galen’s friend Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), although as “Rogue One” begins, the two have not seen each other in years.
Empire cargo pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed, “The Night Of”) sneaks out a message from Galen to Saw, and to find out what it says, the rebels send Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to break Jyn out of prison to get an audience with Saw. Galen’s message lets Jyn know that her father is still alive and that he has secretly hidden that famous Achilles’ heel into the Death Star: the thermal exhaust port that will allow a proton torpedo to blow up the whole thing.
When the heads of the rebel alliance either don’t believe Jyn or don’t want to attempt to steal the heavily guarded plans for the Death Star, she goes rogue, with a team that includes Cassian, Bodhi, sass mouth robot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a blind monk and acolyte of The Force named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, “Hero”), and Chirrut’s close friend Baze Malbus (Chinese actor-director Wen Jiang). (Just how close Chirrut and Baze are will no doubt provide fodder for much fan debate.)
Screenwriters Chris Weitz (“Cinderella”) and Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) keep the pace going along, and they’ve created exactly two characters of interest: the robot, a reprogrammed Imperial security droid with a sardonic attitude, and Chirrut, whose faith in the Force more than makes up for his lack of sight when it comes to fighting skills. (If George Lucas borrowed heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” for the original “Star Wars,” then Chirrut is the series’ homage to the “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman” movies.)
What the writers and director Gareth Edwards (2014’s “Godzilla”) don’t do is color in most of the main characters. Is Jyn in prison because she’s a criminal or because she’s a rebel? Does the fact that Cassian murders an informant within minutes of first appearing on screen make him dangerous? When the alliance leaders refer to Saw as an “extremist” in the rebellion, what exactly does that mean? “Rogue One” never tells us.
Instead, we get the further Muppet Babies-ization of “Star Wars,” with a lot of “this line means something because we know what happens later in the story.” The film’s boldest move involves using CG tricks to re-create certain elements of the 1977 movie, and while the technology isn’t quite all the way there yet, it’s very, very close.
There are some solid action moments, particularly a scene involving a marketplace and public square that calls to mind “Homeland,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and any number of other post-War on Terror movies and TV shows, and the otherwise blank Jones scores one moment of genuine empathy when she gives a speech about the need for hope in the fight against seemingly insurmountable evil. (Apply that monologue to current events as you will.)
Ultimately, however, “Rogue One” seems to want nothing more than for the audience to pat itself on the back because they know what Yavin 4 is: It’s a fun game to play at Comic-Con, but it doesn’t make for much of a movie.