While J. J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, released as the seventh episode of the Star Wars saga, felt like a fanfiction in its attention to the original movie characters and its repetition of plot points, Gareth Edwards' Rogue One -- apparently including significant contributions from Tony Gilroy -- feels like a real reboot of the franchise, despite its CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing and the wheezy line readings of James Earl Jones and Anthony Daniels. It introduces new notes of complexity and moral ambiguity into the legend of the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. It looks more like a rebellion for our time, divided into factions of varying degrees of ruthlessness and fanaticism, though as yet we've seen no space-opera equivalent of ISIS among the rebels against this particular tyranny. As everyone should know by now, Rogue One is an immediate prequel to the original Star Wars film -- or as I suppose we must call it now, A New Hope. It concerns the intrigues and slaughters that ended with the plans to the Death Star, including its crucial flaw, in the hands of Princess Leia. We learn now that the outrageous flaw was actually a deliberate act of design sabotage by captive scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who now needs to get this secret detail to the rebels. In his captivity, however, he has missed the deterioration of the rebellion into factions. His great friend among the rebels is Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who rescued Galen's daughter Jyn when Imperial forces kidnapped Galen and killed his wife. Since then, the mutilated, ailing Gerrera -- he may have been envisioned as a rebel analogue to Darth Vader, though there's something of Col. Kurtz to him, too -- has alienated himself from the official rebellion, i.e. the Alliance, and wages guerrilla or terrorist war from his base on the desert planet Jedha. Galen persuades an Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to defect and fly to Jedha with a hologram in which Galen explains the flaw, but Gerrera has grown paranoid and keeps Bodhi imprisoned, thinking him an Imperial plant, if not an agent of some other enemy. The Alliance knows about the pilot's defection and wants information from him, but fears a hostile reception from Gerrera. Their solution is to recruit the grown-up Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), an imprisoned criminal long since abandoned by Gerrera, as their entry to Jedha. Her Alliance escort, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is tasked with using whatever information can be had from Jedha to track down Galen Erso, extract him from Imperial custody if possible, or kill him if necessary.
That's enough synopsis to show that Rogue One is operating on an entirely different level from other Star Wars films. This is a Star Wars film where nothing or no one has to be cute; its idea of comedy relief is an acerbic tactical droid who jokes about "accidentally" shooting Jyn and dispassionately reminds the other characters of the probability of their deaths at any given moment. He's not wrong to be concerned, as the movie is as ruthless as its characters. It gives a knife's-edge quality to nearly every scene, at least in the first half of the movie. And its complexity extends to the other side, where the Death Star is the object of an institutional feud between the real initiator of the project, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who captured Galen Erso, and Grand Moff Tarkin, who switches on a dime from bullying skepticism to credit poaching, while Darth Vader serves as an impatient, contemptuous referee. Despite the Sith lord's hovering over events, this is a Star Wars film refreshingly free from preoccupation with the Jedi and their powers and bloodlines. The Force exists here only as an object of religious veneration that inspires and possibly empowers the acolytes of the Kyber temple on Jedha (played by Donnie "Ip Man" Yen and Jiang "who ever dreamed of the director of Devils on the Doorstep in a Star Wars film?" Wen). Though people may think of Star Wars as the saga of the Jedi -- The Force Awakens does nothing to contradict that -- the heroes of Rouge One are really more heroic for not being able to depend on superpowers, and the heightened odds against them gives the new film a dramatic tension long absent from the franchise.
There's a point where the picture's character changes, and though I don't think that's when Gilroy took over from Edwards, there's a little awkwardness in the transition. Basically, Rogue One stops being a "dirty war" spy thriller and becomes more of a doomed mission war movie, and once it becomes that all the ambiguities exposed in the first half are resolved or papered over. At one moment Jyn Erso is angry at the Alliance for having used and, arguably, betrayed her, and in the next she's trying to inspire the leading Alliance senators to attack the planet where the Death Star plans are actually stored -- by this point Galen himself can no longer help them -- with a rah-rah speech so heavy on "hope" that it has sparked suspicion of a contemporary political subtext, even though the concept of hope clearly isn't alien to Star Wars. Once we're past this bump, however, Rogue One rushes to the typical multilayered Star Wars climax, as our main band of heroes disperse on various missions on the planet while an Alliance fleet joins the fray once it looks like our heroes have a chance at success. I actually felt that the climax stretched out a little longer than it needed to, but there's no disputing the power and poignancy of it. The effect is spoiled a little by an admittedly badass run-in by Vader and a final word from a CGI Leia, but I feel like I'm nitpicking to mention these things. The real story is that Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, and in an ideal galaxy it, rather than The Force Awakens (its inferior in every respect) would be the model for the future evolution of the Star Wars universe. That's probably not going to happen, however, since I have a feeling this is going to get bad word of mouth for its lack of "fun" or nostalgic pandering. But it may be the most purely entertaining movie I've seen this year. It may not be "Star Wars" as far as some reviewers are concerned, but what counts is that it's a really good movie.