Even if you get nothing else from ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, you'll be reminded (albeit all too briefly) that Darth Vader was a malevolent, murderously light saber swinging, patently evil SOB, not merely a cuddly toy action figure or cute Halloween mask. Vader only has a few scenes in this new spin-off adventure, which in the STAR WARS timeline occurs right before EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (originally simply called STAR WARS, before the dynasty took off), but his formidable presence leaps off the screen in ways it hadn't since, well, possibly ever. There's a late scene in this movie that....well, we'll get back to that.
ROGUE ONE concerns an effort to retrieve the schematics of the Death Star, created by the Empire to pulverize entire planets with a powerful laser. Jyn (Felicity Jones) is a young orphan who leads a group of Rebels - including a former Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has defected and a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2S0 - on this ultra perilous mission. Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was the lead designer/engineer of the gigantic weapon of mass destruction, but his participation was not by choice. This information is not known to Rebel Intelligence, who dispatches officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to assassinate Erso. That information is not known to Jyn, leading to some expected drama, as Cassian is along for the mission.
After Jyn views a hologram (smuggled by Bodhi) of her father explaining a deliberate design flaw he programmed within the Death Star, she's eager to breach the Imperial data bank on the planet Scarif to retrieve the plans. The Rebel Alliance is not so sure of this pursuit (or the validity behind it) and refuse to offer their fleet. Politics! But Jyn and some other frustrated rebels hijack a ship, now dubbed "Rogue One" and head for the palm tree lined Scarif. Also on hand for the fateful ride are blind, constantly chanting warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a muscular rebel mercenary who always has Chirrut's back.
ROGUE ONE is a distinguished entry in the STAR WARS series as it largely eschews humor and lightheartedness (aside from a few of K-2SO's lines) and goes about telling a serious, often grim story of unquestioning sacrifice for a Larger Cause. There's a reason why you don't see these characters in the later chronology. I was surprised at Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's screenplay, how surefooted and sober it was, right to the end. This movie plays like an old Hollywood WWII drama at times, with a certain nihilism that has not sat well with every fan. One friend posted on Facebook: "...at least 3 people lived in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN." For me, it worked very well. Everything did: the exciting land and space battles, the performances, the special effects (some of those X-wing fighters quite charmingly looked like toy models, the way they did in the original 1977 STAR WARS). There are appropriate nods to the original trilogy, but plenty of new elements that work as well.
I was a bit creeped out and weirdly fascinated by the use of CGI to bring an old character (played by an actor who's been dead for over twenty years) back to life, a method used in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, TRON: LEGACY, and several others. This character has several scenes. Additionally, there's also use of an another actor at an earlier age in the very last scene, which will be even more poignant after today.....
But right before that...Vader blazes through a jaw dropping scene that will wow any fan. Reestablish that he is a consummate badass. Gareth Edward's direction of this scene (and honestly, the entire movie) is dead on perfect. You are left wanting much more. EPISODE IV will never be viewed the same way again.
P.S. - Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in Episodes IV - VIII passed away earlier today. I am one of millions who grew up crushing on her feisty, brave fictional character, but also with time appreciating her biting wit in a series of books and interviews. Read some of her quotes about her father and Elizabeth Taylor sometime. Ouch! Her death caps a truly awful year for celebrity passings. I trust the Force will be with her always.