“We’ve all done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion,” someone says midway through “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” I’m relieved to tell you that the movie is not one of those things. But neither is it a pinnacle in the film series that, more than any other property in our popular culture, feels genuinely sacrosanct because it feels like it belongs to us.
It doesn’t, of course. The rights to any new “Star Wars” movies belong to the Walt Disney Company, and “Rogue One” is the first major film in that universe to stray from the canonical story line — it’s a franchise extension and a toe dipped in hopefully profitable waters after the successful relaunch of the brand with last year’s “The Force Awakens.” As such, the new film is being hyped as a triumphant second coming, a brand new wing on the mansion. In reality, after all the digital dust has settled, it’s a supporting beam, and, especially toward the end, a rather dark one.
“Rogue One” initially unfolds as a straightforward action movie, often exciting, just as often over-busy and underwritten. It features characters who, while calling on classic “Star Wars” archetypes, are rather thinly drawn (which for some tenderhearted audiences may be a good thing). The setting is sometime after the events of Episode III and before those of Episode IV, a.k.a. the original 1977 “Star Wars.” (Call it Episode 3B.) A young girl, Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon), is torn from her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) and grows into a tough, cynical galactic roustabout (Felicity Jones) who, in time-honored tradition, sticks her neck out for nobody, least of all the freedom fighters of the Rebel Alliance.
Directed by Gareth Edwards (“Monsters,” “Godzilla”) from a screenplay by Hollywood pros Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, “Rogue One” surrounds this heroine with a sort of dented Magnificent Five. Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, rakishly appealing) hijacks Jyn so he can get to her father, who’s being forced to build a top-secret weapon (wink wink) for the Empire under the brute direction of the movie’s main villain, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).
Along for the mission are a renegade Imperial pilot, the touchingly naive Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed of HBO’s “The Night Of”); a reprogrammed Imperial droid named K-2S0 (speaking in actor Alan Tudyk’s wry tones); and a dynamic duo of blind monk-swordsman Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and hulking sharpshooter Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). The latter two are great fun, and they simultaneously look back to martial arts genre fixtures and ahead to the deep pockets of Chinese theatrical markets.
The movie races forward with little variety in pace, and it offers more details of interoffice politics among the squabbling factions of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance than probably anyone but a mid-level manager cares for. Yet you generally feel you’re in good hands. While there are enough concordances with the known “Star Wars” universe for us to get our bearings, “Rogue One” at first seems less invested in legend building and more interested in telling a story. At a certain point, though, the greater “Star Wars” narrative comes back to claim this movie with a vengeance, and as the biggest puzzle piece clicks into place, the hairs on the back of your neck may rise.
So your emotions are engaged, but mostly indirectly, as they relate to our feelings for other characters in other movies. A few of those characters are even here as digital ghosts. Grand Moff Tarkin, one of the subsidiary villains of the original “Star Wars,” is played by actor Guy Henry with the face of the (very) late Peter Cushing eerily and not all that convincingly pixelated atop his features. There’s a similar Special Appearance toward the end that, along with the plot’s over-reliance on mechanical tasks that need to be solved — throw the switch, plug in the power cord, climb the tower, re-align the antenna — prompts the feeling that we’ve wandered into a very expensive and very well-made video game rather than a movie.
The cast does good work, despite a less-than-great screenplay. The trouble with “iconic” dialogue is that it sounds merely generic if it’s not perfectly turned, and a few too many lines here sound like placeholders for rewrites to come later. (“This town is ready to blow!”) K-2S0’s banter has about a .600 batting average — terrific for Major League Baseball, close to distressing for a film — and an appearance by a major “Star Wars” figure known for his dramatic terseness is unaccountably chatty.
But we’re here for spectacle and the final battle of “Rogue One” piles it on to pulse-quickening and ultimately harrowing effect, with easter-egg glimpses of characters we know/will know and old school close-ups of all those X-Wing fighters talking straight into the camera. If you’ve ever wanted to know what two immense Imperial destroyers smushing into each other looks like, here’s your movie. The one missing piece is a truly memorable villain; I can think of at least five films in which Ben Mendelsohn has been scarier.
There’s this, too (and here is where I tread further into spoiler territory as a warning to parents of very small children): The “Rogue One” that unfolds onscreen is ultimately very different in tone and impact than the heady pop-culture party that months of nonstop marketing would have us believe. There are notions of sacrifice for the greater good here, and of the unfairness of war, and while these will be pondered and taken to heart by adults and older kids, they may be deeply upsetting to your average 6-year-old Obi-wan Kenobi wannabe with a bag of plastic lightsabers at home. You have been advised.
“Rogue One,” in other words, ends up carrying a lot of weight that it only partially earns on its own. It’s generally accepted that not every one of the heroes will make it to the end of an epic saga. What’s both stirring and unsettling is that when a character here dies, it’s so that “Star Wars” may live.
★ ★ ½
ROGUE ONE : A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, and Gary Whitta. Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 133 minutes. PG-13 (extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action)