There are casualties in war.
The “Star Wars” movies have never lost sight of that fact, from “Episode IV: A New Hope” (or as fans of a certain age will always know it as, simply, “Star Wars’), onward through the series’ many sequels and prequels. With such signature moments as the deaths of Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle to the destruction of the planet Alderaan by the Death Star in that very first movie, the human costs of warfare have been acknowledged. But they’ve never weighed quite so heavily on George Lucas’ epic saga as they do in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Crafted as the immediate lead-in to “A New Hope,” being the story of how plans for the Death Star found their way into the hands of the the Rebel Alliance, thereby kicking off the adventures of Luke and Han Solo and Princess Leia, “Rogue One” could not be more different in tone than the chapter it precedes.
Unlike “A New Hope,” with its bright colors and rollicking action sequences, “Rogue One” is bathed in shades of gray, a grim foreshadowing of a joltingly high level of loss among the story’s principal players.
Working from a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, director Gareth Edwards (2014’s “Godzilla”) brings a harsher tone to the proceedings than has been characteristic of previous “Star Wars” movies. Ground-based battle scenes, particularly an ambush of a Stormtrooper column by ragtag rebel guerrillas that seems influenced by urban combat footage from Iraq, have an in-your-face immediacy unlike anything yet seen in the series.
The story also is more bare-bones. There’s no political intrigue this time around, no Jedi conjurings with the Force. The Jedi are in hiding and the Force barely manifests itself. Rather, it’s the story of a fearless young rebel woman named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) searching the galaxy for her long-vanished father (Mads Mikkelsen), a key designer of the Death Star, and her subsequent search for the plans of the super weapon itself.
Hunted, imprisoned, freed, captured, freed again, Jyn is a character in constant peril. There’s sternness in her, but surprisingly little in the way of what I’d call leadership quality. Unlike Daisy Ridley’s character Rey in last year’s “The Force Awakens,” a fierce and resourceful warrior with plenty of spark in her personality, Jones’ Jyn seems oddly impersonal. That characteristic is not confined to her. The leading male characters, a rebel intelligence operative played by Diego Luna and a defector from the Empire played by Riz Ahmed, also lack much in the way of personality or chemistry with one another.
The most notable supporting character is a wisecracking blind warrior played by Chinese superstar Donnie Yen, who brings a welcome element of levity to the movie. A gangly droid voiced by Alan Tudyk also is a source of humor with fussy mannerisms reminiscent of C-3PO (who puts in a fleeting appearance with R2-D2; blink and you’ll miss them). Unlike the gleaming golden C-3PO, this droid is a dull shade of gray, yet another signifier of the picture’s grim tone.
The chief villain, a haughty Empire functionary played by Ben Mendelsohn, is utterly overshadowed not only by that greatest villain of them all, Darth Vader, (again voiced by James Earl Jones), seen briefly but memorably, but surprisingly also by Vader’s boss, the Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing. Who died in 1994. Yet through the magic of CG wizardry, is re-created, hollow cheeks, piercing glare, imperious manner and all.
The action sequences, on the ground and in space, are rousingly staged. But the losses incurred in those sequences are sobering. The stakes in the “Star Wars” rebellion are high indeed.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Felicity Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker.
Director: Gareth Edwards.
Running time: 2:13.
Rated: PG-13, for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action.