Review: 'Rogue One' struggles with ties to 'Star Wars' past

Brian Truitt

Star Wars has arguably the best opening in cinema history, with Princess Leia giving R2-D2 the secret plans to the Death Star and beginning a tale famous in every corner of the world.

Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, from left), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) are on an important Rebel mission in 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.'

Almost 40 years later, the stand-alone Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (**½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Thursday night) shows exactly how the Rebel Alliance snagged that information as the movie tries to differentiate itself from the franchise's past. However, Rogue One is often undermined by its close ties to George Lucas’ original trilogy, and more emphasis is put on its central mission than its fresh-faced characters.

Directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), Rogue One captures cosmic stakes like no other Star Wars movie has — the audience feels the planet-killing power of the Death Star, as well as the desperation of insurgent Rebels battling the fascist Empire.

'Rogue One' rebels against the 'Star Wars' mold

But Star Wars is very much about a grand mythology of Skywalkers and smugglers, “chosen ones” and weird cantina aliens. In that way, Rogue One feels small in scale, even with its signature heroism and sci-fi action, and its main players mostly lack the charm that made Rey, Finn and Poe in last year’s The Force Awakens — or Han, Luke and Leia back in the day — so special.

At least the woman at the heart of Rogue One is memorable. Played with defiant verve by Felicity Jones, Jyn Erso has a back story — told in a fantastic opening sequence — that puts her at odds with the Empire. Her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is key to the Death Star’s operational capabilities, and the Rebels see Jyn as a means to shut down this superweapon of mass destruction.

Imperial Death Troopers lay waste to a moisture farm in 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.'

Jyn gets involved with a motley crew including intelligence officer Capt. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); ex-Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); and blind monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen). On the other side is Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the man in charge of the Death Star who has to deal with cutthroat inter-Empire politics.

But important characterization gets lost amid fan-service gymnastics, excessive even for a Star Wars aficionado. The effort put into working in Easter eggs, winks and knowing nods to the past could have been used better to further its new cast.

7 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' questions you were too afraid to ask

The stiff dialogue also doesn’t do anybody any favors — while all the best lines go to the snarky, scene-stealing droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).  Even Darth Vader (again with the grumbly tones of James Earl Jones) isn't safe from a clunky pun.

Still, Edwards has a great handle on what makes Star Wars-ready visual spectacle. He crafts one of the saga’s best space battles in the superb, film-saving third act and takes the action to land for realistic ground-and-pound warfare.

Fortunately, even an underwhelming Star Wars is a pretty decent Star Wars, but Rogue One misses a real chance to turn the familiar into something remarkable.