Rogue One ***|****

Felicity Jones in Rogue One

The Star Wars Anthology continues after last year’s Episode VII with Rogue One, which is technically a prequel to the 1977 original but also serves as a standalone film with a new slate of characters and settings. In some ways, it’s slavishly devoted to the mold created by its predecessors but it does take some creative leaps of its own and strives to get this artistic balance just right. Most importantly, this movie builds on the promise of The Force Awakens by providing more spectacular sequences of space battle that are as technologically ground-breaking today as the original trilogy was in its day.

The story here involves the covert Rebel operation to steal the plans for an impending weapon by the Empire called the Death Star, a mission which is led by the fugitive Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and a soldier named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). The crew is also comprised of an Imperial pilot now aligned with the Rebels (Riz Ahmed) and Andor’s droid assistant name K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who provides some comic relief to this often grim tale. Hot on the Rebels’ trail is Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who is in charge of the Death Star’s initial weapons tests and whose research helped develop it as the Empire’s most powerful war machine.

Director Gareth Edwards, who headed up the 2014 Godzilla reboot, paces this film breathlessly, beginning with a cold open prologue from Erso’s childhood that segues into introductions to a dozen new faces across several planets within the first 15 minutes. It’s a lot to take in but once he finds his rhythm, the plot begins to unfold more naturally and the stakes are laid out very clearly. Newcomers should have their hands full just keeping track of the action but existing Star Wars buffs, especially those of A New Hope, should also be able to pick up on many bits of fan service scattered along the way, particularly towards the film’s stunning conclusion.

A significant way that Rogue One doesn’t quite stack up to The Force Awakens is in its handling of these new characters, as Erso doesn’t feel nearly as fleshed out as Rey was in last year’s film and Andor doesn’t have nearly the personality of Finn or Poe. It also squanders the charisma of actors like Riz Ahmed, who doesn’t have nearly enough to do here, and Donnie Yen, who has some well-designed combat scenes but is mainly left murmuring a mantra about the Force again and again. While the script isn’t as strong on its character development, it does have an engaging political subtext that I wasn’t expecting and some incisive messages about the consequences of war.

Aside from these details, the big picture is really what matters most and this movie delivers on the basis of pure adrenaline action in a way that none of the other prequels have in the past. In fact, there are two major setpieces, those on the rainy planet of Eadu and the  Imperial base on Scarif, that could stack up even against some of the best action scenes from the original trilogy. Rogue One puts Disney at 2-for-2 since their acquisition of Lucasfilm and with the masterful Rian Johnson at the creative helm of Episode VIII, there should be plenty to make Star Wars fans excited for the future.