"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." says the familiar graphic, and then we're back in the Star Wars galaxy. Everything feels a bit different, except nothing has changed.
I have no interest in spoiling Rogue One for you--that's the full on-screen title--because its pleasures deserve to be discovered in situ. What I will say is we know the plot already, for the most part, assuming we've seen a heist film like Ocean's Eleven or a Mission Impossible before. That's not where the special treats lie. Rather, this is a basket of Easter eggs for fans both casual and obsessive. We're talking deep, old-school geekery here.
The movie has two flaws, both of which are significant but neither of which are utterly damning. One is the repeated use, dare I say overuse, of cameos from the Holy Trilogy of 1977-1983. ILM deploys cutting-edge effects wizardry to make this happen, and it works more often than not. Still, I bet there will be at least one occasion, perhaps in Jedha City, when you find yourself wondering, "Was that callback really necessary?" The other flaw, at least as many viewers will perceive it, is the pacing of the first hour. I should point out the original Star Wars is paced rather slowly in its own first hour, more like a Western than an action movie, but The Empire Strikes Back accelerated the pace to a clip seen as impatient by critics of its day but expected by popcorn blockbuster audiences now. Let's be gracious and call the pace of Rogue One's first two acts "leisurely."
I don't want to mince words here: The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie of all time. I couldn't tell you how many times I've watched it, but I can promise you that number will go up. Empire expanded on its fairy-tale predecessor by enriching the dialogue, finessing the cinematography, and upping the stakes for its characters. At the age of 12, I perceived the movie as more "grown-up" than "A New Hope." And when Return of the Jedi was released three years later, I loved it, of course, but recognized it as a retreat to Toys 'R' Us immaturity. In The Force Awakens, cowriter-director J. J. Abrams nailed Star Wars' wide-eyed innocence. Rogue One steps deep into Empire's moral complexity and more stylized cinematography. You might expect, then, that I enjoyed Rogue One even more than the giddy degree to which I loved The Force Awakens, but that wasn't the case. Both films are deeply entertaining, but I suspect I'll rewatch The Force Awakens more often. You may disagree, but I found Rogue One rewarding, exciting and tense without always being...well...fun.
It's a war movie. People get killed. Actually, a lot of people (including nonhuman people) get killed, though I don't recall a single drop of blood. The good guys don't always hold the moral high ground. The baddies are at times sympathetic. I admire that. Is that Star Wars? Is it a family film? I don't know. I suspect we'll be debating that for years.
Because the rest of Rogue One is so Star Wars! If you love this stuff at all, the last half hour will make you wriggle in your seat. I heard grown men gasp and commend the action on the screen. (True confession: I was one of them.) The last word of dialogue and crash to end credits earned a round of enthusiastic applause. Online chatter from critics and fans alike would have us believe Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie since 1980; I'm afraid I can't go that far, but it is very, very good, in exactly the Empire vein adult fans have been craving. I don't think there's any denying this is a better film all over than Return of the Jedi. Without all the clumsy fumbling of Episode III's final minutes, Rogue One transitions perfectly into Episode IV--so neatly, in fact, that the Holy Trilogy can now be said to comprise four films.
There are three characters at least that you'll fall in love with, including protagonist Jyn Erso (played impeccably by Felicity Jones). Rogue One's scale and spectacle are jaw-dropping, its action scenes tense and geographically clear. I'll happily buy it on video and pore through every arcane bonus feature. It seems clearer than ever that Star Wars is in good hands at Disney's Lucasfilm, respectful of fans but eager to please the movie masses. Grade: A-.
Now bring on Episode VIII !