By Michael Phillips 2017-01-13

Chicago Tribune

3 stars

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," the tale of a controversial Death Star and those who loathe it, operates as a prequel to the 1977 movie that became a flexible, malleable religion (with ray guns!) to millions. The new movie is a little bit "Guardians of the Galaxy," a little bit "Dirty Dozen" in its mass wartime slaughter, and a pretty good time once it gets going.

The opening title crawl to the '77 original made reference, as you may recall, to "Rebel spies" who manage to "steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR." Some death stars deserve all caps, for sure!

Industrial Light and Magic chief creative officer John Knoll thought there would be a nice little stand-alone movie in imagining who these rebels were, and how they wangled the Death Star plans from the Empire forces. Lo: "Rogue One," which takes its name from the U-shaped spaceship whisking our Alliance fighters to the tropical planet Scarif for the big showdown. The group is led by Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso and Diego Luna as Cassian Andor. Scarif resembles the Atlantis Paradise Bahamas resort as redesigned by Albert Speer.

Deliberately, director Gareth Edwards' effort is rough around the edges, hectic in its cross-cutting but increasingly effective as kinetic cinema. The battle scenes are shot in what production designer Neil Lamont calls "docu-war film" style, heavy on the hand-held technique, with cinematographer Greig Fraser making use of some old-timey '77-era lenses. In the climax, when our heroes are joined by their fellow rebel forces, the familiar orange jumpsuits and super-bright cockpit lighting takes you all the way back to director George Lucas' ode to "Flash Gordon."

Much of the film's middle section, in which Jyn and her father (Mads Mikkelsen) reunite after many years, takes place in dark, glum, rainy settings that out-"Blade Runner" "Blade Runner" in terms of precipitation. Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy foreground the father/daughter saga, when they're not focusing on the coming-together of the lone wolves comprising Rogue One's rebel fighters. Donnie Yen plays the blind and dazzlingly lethal Chirrut Imwe, with whom the Force is strong; Jiang Wen is Baze Malbus, ex-assassin; Riz Ahmed is the pilot Bodhi Rook, and in the droid department, "Rogue One" introduces a fine addition to the "Star Wars" universe, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who gets some genuinely funny material. He's programmed to express his feelings at all times, no matter how blunt.

The movie's pretty violent. Certain shots, such as a child screaming for her mother in the middle of a rebel attack on the Empire troops in a crowded marketplace, evoke memories of various nonfiction wars in Vietnam and Iraq, by design. Several people exiting Monday from the Chicago press screening expressed the same three-word sentiment -- "not for kids" -- though of course millions of preteens will prove that sentiment hapless.

Director Edwards made the unusually grave and compelling reboot of "Godzilla," and while "Rogue One" is less distinctive fantasy, veering in and out of story focus, it is its own thing and very much a thing designed to fit into all the other things that came before it. Last year, there was a little push-back from certain racially preoccupied and frankly embarrassing "Star Wars" devotees regarding the casting of a young actor of color (John Boyega) in one of the male leads. The multicultural ensemble of "Rogue One" may well spell heart attacks and an early demise for those who really, really want the "Star Wars" universe to stay the Way It Used To Be. Whatever; these people are dopes. I do wish Felicity Jones' character popped the way Daisy Ridley's did in last year's franchise offering. "The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams, was smooth, consistent, even-toned, nostalgic. "Rogue One" zigzags, and it's more willfully jarring. Yet it takes time for callbacks and shout-outs to characters we've seen before, and we'll see again. And again. And again.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action).

Running time: 2:13

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