Rogue One's place in the Star Wars cannon may prove slightly confusing to those who aren't bigger fans: It comes before Episodes IV-VI (which were actually released first) but after Episodes I - III (the ones with Hayden Christensen, which were released decades later) and has little connection to The Force Awakens (aka Episode VII, which was released almost exactly one year ago to the day). It is a sequel and a prequel and an anthology film and A Star Wars Story.
This particular story follows Jyn Erso (the wonderful Felicity Jones) and her ragtag group of Rebels on an inter-galactic heist to steal plans for the Imperial Forces’ new planet-destroying weapon, the Death Star. That's about all you need to know, as it is best to go in as unspoiled as possible.
Which could prove a double-edged sword for the more casual Star Wars fans among us. Whereas The Force Awakens was steeped in the franchise's most universally-recognizable lore -- Chewbacca and Han Solo and Jedis and Leia -- Rogue One seems catered towards the die-hard fans, with a lot of heavy mythology set up in the beginning. (You could also argue the movie only exists to fix a plot hole Star Wars fans have been pointing out since '83.)
The first half of Rogue One can at times feel like a slog to get through, the plotting often overly and needlessly convoluted -- Forest Whitaker delivers perhaps the most bonkers performances in the galaxy far, far away, but you could excise him from the film completely without losing much. It is chock full of big, Apocalypse Now-esque set pieces, with loads of explosions and rubble and indistinct shooting, but they work to make you miss the more personal feeling of a classic lightsaber-on-lightsaber duel. These are just symptoms of a larger problem with the film, though: You never come to deeply care about these characters like we do Luke, Rey and Finn.
Despite a great performance by Jones, who has a knack for making any line of dialogue sound natural (a special talent in the Star Wars verse) none of the interpersonal connections here, even Jyn's own "I am your father" situation, feel as crucial to the core of the movie -- or as emotionally moving.
Jyn's misfit band of brothers (played by Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Wen Jiang and Donnie Yen) has murky motivations which bleed into their murky characterizations which bleed into their murky point of being in the movie. Yeah, the blind guy who does martial arts is cool, but...who is he? The stand-out is K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid who always says whatever he's thinking without filter and provides some much-needed levity in what is perhaps the darkest and grittiest Star Wars film yet. (It's certainly scarier than Force Awakens).
Any faults are redeemed in the third act, however, when the team finally, you know, goes rogue. It is the most Star Wars-ian chunk of the film, becoming something closer to an Episode-like space opera. Mostly it works because there are stakes -- something missing from our current era of franchises, when you know everyone will survive for the sequel. Yes, because of the unique book-ending of Rogue One, we know that ultimately the Rebels will succeed in stealing the plans to the Death Star and Princess Leia will eventually put them into R2-D2. But since there will be no Rogue Two, we do not already know what will happen to these characters or who will make it out alive, which makes for a truly thrilling climax, leading to an ending that prompted someone in my theater to shout, "Oh my GOD!"