The Galactic Empire is constructing a weapon of mass destruction with the help of a weapons expert named Galen Erso. The nascent Rebel Alliance has heard rumours of its existence but little more...until a defecting Imperial pilot goes to ground on Jedha with an extremist named Saw Gerrera. The Rebels dispatch intelligence agent Cassian Andor to Jedha along with Jyn Erso, Galen's daughter, with orders to discover the nature of the Imperial threat and uncover its weaknesses.
When is a Star Wars movie not a Star Wars movie? That's a difficult question to answer. For hardcore fans, the franchise has always been about the depiction of a vast galaxy with lots of stories to tell about characters and worlds unrelated to the Force, the Empire or the Skywalker family, across comics and video games and animated TV series, but for casual movie-goers it's a more complex question. Rogue One is the first live-action Star Wars film not to be about the Jedi or the machinations of the Skywalker family tree, but it still has X-wings, TIE fighters, droids and villains with perfectly-clipped English accents. Disney seem to be kidding themselves that they are taking a risk with this movie, although it's still a fine slice of action blockbuster entertainment that will have adult fans and kids queueing up to see the movie in droves (although no-one is expecting it to repeat the business of last year's The Force Awakens, it should still be one of the biggest films of the year).
Those same kids may be leaving the cinema in floods of tears though. I've seen some people saying that Rogue One is the "darkest Star Wars film except for Sith and maybe Empire". That's lowballing it. Rogue One is easily the most ruthless and bleakest Star Wars movie to date, dispatching characters with such murderous and sometimes offhand efficiency that even George R.R. Martin might rise an eyebrow at it. An insurgent bombing of an Imperial convoy in a desert town feels rather uncomfortable to watch given contemporary events in Syria and the concluding tropical battle, which starts off feeling like a cheerful CGI shoot 'em up before (in one of director Gareth Edwards' more subtle and brilliant moments) shifting gradually into Apocalypse Now, becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch. For a franchise whose numbered entries have sanitised their violence (the dismemberment of Anakin in Sith being the only real previous moment of visceral horror in the series), Rogue One has no problem with pushing the boundaries of what kids will tolerate. If possible, I would advise a parent preview of the film before deciding if you want young kids (say under 10) from seeing it.
The movie tells the story of a group of original characters who, it is established, are the ones who hear about the Death Star and eventually steal the plans that allow Luke, Han, Chewie, Wedge, Biggs and company to blow up the station at the end of the original 1977 film, A New Hope. It's a film that therefore exists in a somewhat schizophrenic state: on the one hand, as an original piece with new characters it has the chance to do things that are brave, original or even experimental, but it has to also closely coexist with the established continuity, particularly A New Hope, which may be the most scrutinised and iconic SF movie of all time.
Against the odds, the film does - more or less - succeed at doing what it sets out to do. Our core team of saboteurs and mercenaries consist of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). They are uniformly excellent, as you'd expect from seasoned hands (the newest performer here is Jones, who still made her screen debut twenty years ago as a child actress), and they all get their moments in the sun. The interplay and connection between the characters is pretty compelling and it's a shame that we're not going to see more adventures with them: Disney has ruled out a direct sequel to Rogue One and it sounds like the next few Star Wars movie are going to take place in the post-Force Awakens era or be more prequels set before Rogue One and focusing on the backstories of Han Solo, Lando Calrissian and (possibly) Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The story slots into place rather neatly before the events of A New Hope (days, if not hours, separate the two) and helps clear up a few niggling continuity issues from that film, namely what happened to the Rebel fleet in that film, how did Princess Leia get the battle plans and just how stupid were the Death Star designers? It turns out they weren't, the designer was a Rebel sympathiser who deliberately built a weakness into his plans which, thanks to security-mandated compartmentalisation, no-one else was senior enough to spot. No wonder George Lucas is reportedly a fan of the movie, as it helps retcon a few of the (admittedly minor) issues from the original movie out of existence.
More problematic is that the film needs to deal with the fact that some major characters are shared between it and A New Hope, and many of those actors are now dead or forty years older than they were when they made that film. A mixture of solutions are deployed. Darth Vader, for example, is simply a new actor (Game of Thrones's Spencer Wilding) wearing the suit with James Earl Jones back to do the voice work. Mon Mothma and General Dodonna are lookalikes, with actors Genevieve O'Reilly and Ian McElhinney (also late of Game of Thrones) replacing Caroline Blakiston and Alex McCrindle. In a clever move, director Gareth Edwards used alternate takes of the X-wing and Y-wing pilots from the Battle of Yavin from A New Hope to directly drop some of the established pilots from that battle into this engagement (which makes perfect sense). More controversial is the decision to use CGI to recreate Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the late Peter Cushing. His first appearance comes reflected in a starship window and if they'd stuck to that approach and kept his appearance to a cameo that would have been fine. Instead, having the very-clearly CG Tarkin wandering around and interacting with other characters drops us very firmly into the uncanny valley. Fortunately it's only really a couple of scenes that this impacts, but it's still weird and feels a bit inappropriate.
One of the film's biggest issues is the odd structure and pacing in the final act. The film doesn't climax so much as end abruptly on a rather bleak and horrible note, with the writers and director Edwards content to let A New Hope take over in providing catharsis or a resolution to the many storylines in motion. In this sense the film feels like it maybe gives too short a shrift to its compelling own cast of heroes and reduces them to, from the POV of the entire saga, also-rans. It's a movie that short-changes its own cast of characters in order to set up another one you've already seen, which is certainly a valid direction to take, just a rather odd one. This more notable with the villains, with Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn struggling manfully with variable material) being very a clearly a C-lister compared to Tarkin and Vader, despite having vastly more screen time. Whenever he wasn't on screen, I tended to forget he even existed.
Ultimately, Rogue One (****) is a successful movie, even if it's more of a modest diversion from the main focus of the series rather than an original piece of film-making. There's some excellent space battles (and it's undeniably thrilling to see the original X-wings, Y-wings, TIE Fighters, Corellian Corvettes and Star Destroyers mixing it up), some impressive stunts and some superb acting from a bunch of contemporary actors all at the top of their game. There's some musings on the morality of warfare and how far the desperate Rebels are willing to go to achieve their ends which add a little more depth to proceedings. The CG resurrection of long-dead actors I could do without and the film crashes rather unsubtly through the barrier between "subtle homage" and "fan-service" a few too many times, but overall this is an entertaining and worthwhile film that experiments moderately with the Star Wars formula whilst not straying far from the series tropes. But on final reflection I have to say I found The Force Awakens a more emotionally satisfying film with a proper beginning, middle and end, despite its derivative re-use of plot elements from other films in the saga, whilst Rogue One ultimately can't quite deliver on its initially more interesting story and more satisfying action beats.
Star Wars: Rogue One is on general release across most of the world now. The next Star Wars movie, Episode VIII (the direct sequel to The Force Awakens), will be released in December 2017.