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'Rogue One' trades mysticism for momentum 

It's a spitfire prequel.

click to enlarge HARBINGER: AT-AT walkers on the tropical planet Scarif protect the Empire's developing Death Star in the first stand-alone Star Wars film, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story."
  • HARBINGER: AT-AT walkers on the tropical planet Scarif protect the Empire's developing Death Star in the first stand-alone Star Wars film, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story."

The "Star Wars" franchise has typically existed more within the realm of fantasy than of science fiction, an Arthurian tale thrown into space with its messiah-like characters and a clear good-versus-evil dichotomy. Honestly, the muddled mysticism underlying the movies usually left me cold, and I never experienced anything approaching the collective obsession over all things "Star Wars" — until now.

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is the first in a series of stand-alone films set inside the "Star Wars" universe. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a prisoner of imperial forces, is en route to a labor colony when freed by a group of Rebel Alliance fighters, including the droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). But this is not a mission of mercy. The Rebel Alliance has received information about a powerful weapon, the Death Star, being developed by the Empire and wants Jyn to discover what she can about it, given that the head engineer is her father, and imperial collaborator, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Teaming up with K-2SO and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jyn soon learns that the Death Star has a fatal flaw, unknown to imperial leaders, and, joined by other renegades and misfits, she helps to lead a mission to track down the secret plans that could give the Rebel Alliance a new hope in their struggle.

"Rogue One" improves vastly upon the original trilogy by making the rebellion richer and more realistic. As Robert Gildea noted in "Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance," the French Resistance of popular celebration is a lie — the real resistance encompassed a multitude of groups all across France and Europe, some of whom opposed each other, such that the broader anti-Nazi movement at times bordered on civil war. Likewise, this movie highlights factions among the resistance, including one Saw Gerrera (a tragically underused Forest Whitaker), who leads a splinter group dubbed "extremist" by the mainstream Rebel Alliance. No savior figures here — only damaged people trying to make the future better through imperfect and debatable means.

Some reviewers have criticized "Rogue One" for poor characterization, not exploring the motivations behind people's actions. Indeed, Jyn Erso herself goes from well-nigh feral at the beginning to rousing speechmaker near the end. However, with regard to the other characters, it must be noted that, unlike the original trilogy with its hero's journey, this is a war movie, at times even echoing "Saving Private Ryan." And war throws together different people regardless of their motivations, people who must decide very quickly whether they are willing to die for each other. The movie's spitfire pacing makes us invest in these characters on the spot and, consequently, feel exactly how high the stakes are. You might remember it being said in a Rebel Alliance meeting in Episode IV that the plans for the Death Star came at great cost. Now we learn just how true that was.

And we also experience more directly the Empire's evil. While the original trilogy treated technology like magic, "Rogue One" acknowledges the horror underlying the Death Star's operations, drawing visceral parallels between it and the atomic bomb. Too, Darth Vader makes a few small appearances that finally restore to him the mantle of true menace, long diminished by the reduction of him in the prequels to an insufferable brat.

And though it perhaps ranks as a spoiler, I should note that Princess Leia Organa (a role immortalized by the late Carrie Fisher) makes a brief appearance that links this movie closely to Episode IV. Princess Leia was always the moral center of the original movies, and it's gratifying to see another female lead who stands on her own two feet and confronts the world with grit and determination. I may not yet be a total "Star Wars" fan, but I am, most definitely, a "Rogue One" fan.

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