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Arts and Entertainment

'Rogue One' Is A Fun But Frivolous Addition To The 'Star Wars' Universe

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To be a part of the Star Wars universe means being burdened with the weight of seven feature films—of which four are universally beloved—and a vast media empire of novels, cartoons (which also spawned their own feature film), comics and video games. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the latest entrant to this canon, and it ultimately serves to explain the jumping-off point for the entire world of Star Wars. So why, oh why, does it feel so frivolous?

Supposedly modeling itself after classic World War II raid films like The Guns of Navarone and The Dam Busters (the press notes' words, not mine), Rogue One decidedly moves at a brisker pace than any of the "episode" films that are at the heart of Star Wars. There's no time for the classic scroll at the beginning to give us any backstory, and instead of seamless world-building, new planets are announced with onscreen text, a first for any Star Wars film. Also mostly absent are the grand establishing shots that give you a sense of the world that these characters inhabit. The editing here is snappier, and the locales mostly blur together with a palette of grays and tan. It doesn't feel like a Star Wars film, and that's by design.

The rogues (sorry) gallery of characters, as a result, also get the short shrift. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the latest tough-as-nails Star Wars heroine, a petty criminal who's recruited by the Rebellion because her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) serves as an engineer in the Empire's plan to build the planet-destroying Death Star. Her crew includes Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Nightcrawler's Riz Ahmed), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Firefly's Alan Tudyk), blind Force-attuned warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen), and soldier of fortune with a big gun Baze Malbus (Chinese star Jiang Wen). And while each character has their own quirks and specialties—as demanded in any ragtag team of superheroes (Guardians of the Galaxy 2 out in May!)—there's little breathing room for them to interact and form any sort of rapport. The most chemistry we get is with Chirrut and Baze, whose own characters share a backstory that ushers in a pre-written brotherhood.

There's no time, dammit, to sit and talk. The Death Star is already fully operational, and the Rogue One team hops, skips and jumps from planet to planet, having to fend off any number of new tanks and spacecraft that are already available on the shelf at your local Toys R Us. The film is nominally directed by Godzilla's Gareth Edwards (though reshot and reworked by Tony Gilroy), and the action ends up feeling like an anonymous, movie-by-committee action film more in line with Disney's other mega-property: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's loud and frenetic, with respites centered around cameos of already-beloved Star Wars characters. Darth Vader, as already heavily suggested by the promotion, plays the largest role here, as does a CGI Grand Moff Tarkin, whose uncanny valley appearance is off-putting the first few times he appears onscreen (Tarkin actor Peter Cushing died in 1994).

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This isn't to say Rogue One is not without its merits. Ben Mendelsohn puts in good work, where the script allows it, as Orson Krennic, an Imperial officer whose appearance and pettiness harkens back to another classic film villain: Principal Dick Vernon from The Breakfast Club, as played by Paul Gleason. The action in Rogue One is quite thrilling, if mostly in the mode of intensity that was set by J.J. Abrams in The Force Awakens. But in the end, Rogue One is an inessential trifle within the greater galaxy it inhabits. The cast has little resonance beyond the mission it must achieve—disposable heroes in a world filled with characters we already cherish.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in theaters Friday.