A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — a slightly longer time ago, actually, than usual — there's a little girl named Jyn. She has a dad who was an important cog in the Empire's war machine until he went on the lam. As Rogue One starts, his Imperial overlord (Ben Mendelsohn, sneering up a dust storm) has caught up with him, and it's Jyn who must go on the lam.
Flash forward a few years. Jyn, now played by a steely Felicity Jones, has been in hiding for a decade or so, and has grown to be a rebellious young woman, sought by a ragtag band of rebels who have news of the father who has missed most of her childhood.
"He's critical," she's told by a rebel leader when they finally catch her, "to the development of a super weapon."
A planet-killing super weapon you may have heard of: the Death Star.
"If my father built this thing, we need to find him," Jyn replies, and that turns out to be exactly what the rebel forces had in mind, though not with quite the same aim as this doting daughter.
You won't get more plot than that from me, because plot is the chief attraction in Rogue One. With Stormtroopers lurking 'round every intergalactic corner, director Gareth Edwards hasn't much time for such other Star Warsian charms as character, grace, whimsy and, most of all, fun. He does like to linger over battles, although I can't say their outcomes are ever much in doubt, the fears of a pessimistic droid (voiced indispensably by Alan Tudyk) notwithstanding.
We've been here before, and will doubtless go here again, probably with more imagination, and hopefully with more seeming to ride on the outcome. Rogue One is allegedly a standalone story, but it's also a prequel, tied so tightly to the stories we've already heard that most 9-year-olds will be able to tell those nervous Nellies in the rebel alliance how it's all going to come out, even before Jyn delivers the script's flatfooted version of a St. Crispin's Day speech.
"The time to fight is now," she keens, to a notably unreceptive crowd.
The place to fight, it should be noted, is all over the intergalactic map. So many planets, rebel hideouts, obscure moons and imperial bases get name-checked in the first few minutes that I figured I must've forgotten to do a homework assignment. Someone (I think it was Forest Whitaker's seemingly rebuilt-from-spare-parts rebel fanatic) tells Jyn "we have a long road ahead of us," and by about the sixth shoot-em-up on a different moon, it's clear he's not kidding.
With all the aerial dogfights, armored combat vehicles, grenades, flame-throwers and snipers, Rogue One feels like a film for those who think that most Star Wars movies are insufficiently like World War II flicks. Or maybe that they should more closely resemble computer games.
Either way though, the film doesn't make much use of the talents of a whole raft of heavyweights (besides Whitaker, there's Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Ben Daniels), and an appealing lightweight or two — notably Diego Luna as a handler for (and eventual disciple of) Jyn. And it squanders them while not only not being distinctive, but also while seeming to go out of its way not to be distinctive. Rogue One knows its place: It's a placeholder — a way for the Disney organization not merely to monetize but to annualize a franchise that used to have a three-year gap between movies.
Disney has tightened that to two years for the current trilogy, and it's filling in the off years with — well, with filler. Rogue One brings a few digitally resurrected characters from the first Lucas trilogy along for the ride, and features a blind monk who trusts the Force — just enough to remind you that you're watching a movie with a brand. Presumably next year, with the release of the as-yet-untitled Episode VIII — a "real" Star Wars installment (whatever that means these days) — the brand will get the requisite reinforcement.