Rogue One

Although the onscreen title of the new “Star Wars” prequel is simply “Rogue One,” it should have read “Star Wars: Episode 3.5: The Middle Years.” Garth Edwards’ film bridges 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” and 1977’s “A New Hope,” with a tale of rebels who undertake a suicide mission to steal the plans to build the Death Star.

Like Edwards’ 2014 “Godzilla,” “Rogue One” is both visually impressive and vaguely disappointing. After a dreary, lumpy start, it finally takes off as an action movie. What never ignites are the characters, who are one-dimensional at best and fail to fully engage our emotions. The “Star Wars” films always have always stood out for their great storytelling and sporting loveable characters. Here, the protagonists are a charisma-free cast of heroes.

It’s refreshing to see such an international assortment of performers, but none of them can hold the screen like Harrison Ford, or even Ewan McGregor. Everyone has been better elsewhere, starting with a surprisingly one-note Felicity Jones and an out-of-his-element Diego Luna. Riz Ahmed is on hand to recite plot exposition and Forest Whitaker’s strange turn as Saw Gerrera (he inhales oxygen from a mask like Dennis Hopper in “Blue Velvet”) is a bit much.

Martial artist and “Ip Man” star Donnie Yen has the most interesting character, as his blind warrior (shades of Zatoichi!) acknowledges The Force as a full-on religious belief and not simply a mystical weapon. However, seeing Yen fight against bulky storm troopers is like watching Jackie Chan fighting department store mannequins.

While the giant AT-AT Walkers were imposing, startling war machines in “The Empire Strikes Back,” they were far more striking in the snowy Hoth than the tropical climate of “Rogue One.” That may be the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever written in my life.

The eerie, near-perfect CGI recreation of a now deceased actor, reprising a famous “Star Wars” role, is the film’s best special effect. On the other hand, this method of getting new performances from actors who are no longer young and/or alive flops in the very last scene. I won’t give either appearance away but it showcases a decades-old fear of actor likenesses being recycled and manipulated by CGI. Love it or hate it, this method of digital trickery has never been done better.

Ben Mendelsohn provides great villainy as the wicked Krennic, though leave it to Lord Vader to steal the entire movie with just two scenes. Vader is no longer played by David Prowse (nor, to the delight of fanboys everywhere,  Hayden Christensen) but still voiced by the incomparable James Earl Jones. Vader makes a terrific entrance in soupy white light and has a great sequence with Mendelsohn. Much later, there’s a mean, scary sequence (the film’s best) that reminds us why Vader is one of cinema’s greatest villains.

Michael Giacchino’s score effectively mimics cues from John Williams’ music from the first “Star Wars” and creates a sonic bridge. Yet, his score also frustrates, as we wish he’d stop teasing us and just play the Williams music. The lack of an opening crawl is jarring and sends an odd message. If Disney is suggesting that this is minor league, merely “A Star Wars Story,” and not worthy of the traditional scroll, then why should we care? “Rogue One” is far better than “Ewoks: The Battle for Endor,” for example, but I share the company belief that this is a lesser installment.

I’ve been a die-hard “Star Wars” fan my entire life- it was the first movie I ever saw and seeing it for the first time is the oldest memory I have. “Rogue One” is pretty-good most of the time but didn’t capture my imagination like the other installments.

There’s lots of nostalgia fuel but little charm in this one. The bold, dark qualities don’t matter if you don’t care who lives or dies. Despite the noteworthy death count at the film’s end, I never felt much of anything for the rebels who died. On the other hand, that Darth Vader sure is awesome!

Two and a half stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly