Film Review: ‘Rogue One’

Any new Star Wars film must be watched by the widest possible American audience, so it’s delicious that “Rogue One” puts people in the position of rooting for a desert-dwelling band of terrorists who plot to steal military secrets from an all-powerful Imperial power structure. The insurgents repeat variations on the same mysterious prayer every time they go into battle: “The Force is with me.”

What this “Star Wars Story” has going for it is that director Gareth Edwards wasn’t pressured to make an immortal “Episode” film from the main series, one that must last in memory and action figure sales for generations. It need not enter our “collective mythos” – it simply need be an action flick that pays back its $200 million budget. It’s a more comfortable role for the dude who directed “Godzilla,” and Edwards succeeds.

Felicity Jones is rebel leader Jyn Erso and it’s her movie – she is close up at the center of the frame every time she appears, often looking over her shoulder to reveal the Princess Leia-like bun at the back of her head. “Rogue One” begins with Jyn’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), and mother in a Mexican standoff with Empire baddies on the planet Lokori. One parent is shot, another coerced into collaboration with the dark side and, as the Storm Trooper doll falls from her hands, Jyn’s radicalization is complete.

Years later she turns up in Jedha, an Imperial-occupied moon with heavy “Battle of Algiers” vibes. It’s being stripped of its kyber crystals to fuel the Death Star, which is still the best-named mass killing machine (and the apotheosis of a successful drone program). The project lead is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) who coos things like, “Oh it’s beautiful” at the death rays shot from the Star’s sphincter. He’s supposed to sound evil but it’s a fair statement – there’s nothing more breathtaking than a nuclear sunset.

A fun element of the film is that Krennic is basically a blocked middle manager – his boss is a guy with a skull for a head (Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing, who has been dead since 1994) and his big boss is Lord Vader, a close talker and volcano fortress dweller with whom we’re well familiar.

Against this darkness are Jyn’s leery rebel allies. Cassian (Diego Luna) is too busy touting his guerilla bonafides to take the stab at romance you’d expect. Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind Force-believer tags along with his machine gunner (and lover?) Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and they participate in more summary executions than one remembers in earlier “Star Wars” iterations. K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) is a reprogrammed Imperial droid who provides data-based humor and co-pilots planes with Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) a former Imperial flyboy who defects to the rebels. The most captivating – but sadly not most seen – jihadist is Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an old battleaxe of the resistance. His words are precious since he has to take hits from an oxygen mask to muster even a mumble, like an exhausted Denver Broncos defensive lineman.

The whole lot of them convene at a cameo-laden Rebel Alliance strategy meeting that, with its argumentative but marginalized leftists, takes on the tenor of a contentious food co-op meeting over whether to allow the usage of plastic bags.

In the end, the rebels decide to attack Scarif, an Imperial stronghold located on Caribbean-like island planet where not a single mojito is sipped – the scenery says spring break, but the action is Normandy set in the Maldives. Some Storm Troopers rock a black formalwear, but regrettably there’s no swimsuit competition on shore.

The climax is boosted by sharp and swift battle cinematography with strong continuity switches between shots of X-wings strafing Imperial positions, ground troops blowing up stuff, and Jyn and Cassian playing a high stakes game of claw machine to pinch the plans that reveal a weakness inside the Death Star.

“Rogue One” boasts that rarest blockbuster feat – a surprising ending. In a cinema landscape of dull superheroics, it’s fascinating to see a film made to supply martyrs rather than sequels.

• • •

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 2:13. Visit cinemawest.com.