The good news about “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the first in a planned series of stand-alone movies set in the “Star Wars” universe, is that the last half-hour of the film is a sustained stretch of rousing action, indelible images and cliffhanger thrills. It’s pop sci-fi bliss.
The bad news about “Rogue One” is that getting to the good stuff is a slog — and the movie is pretty long. The inherent problem in a story about the suicide mission to steal the Death Star plans used to blow up the space station at the end of “A New Hope” is that we already know how it ends. There’s no suspense, no momentum, no stakes. You don’t get caught up in the narrative as much as wait for the inevitable. This movie is about the journey, not the destination.
And the journey is about as exciting as a long drive down the Florida Turnpike. There are a lot of protagonists in “Rogue One” — the movie is superficially busy — but director Gareth Edwards’ decision to adopt a slow-fuse pace, similar to the one he used in 2014’s “Godzilla,” results in a surprisingly tedious picture. The only surprises in the script, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, are which of the iconic “Star Wars” characters will make cameos. Darth Vader’s presence in the movie is already well known. There may be others (OK, there are definitely others).
But aside from answering the burning question of “Why did the designers of the Death Star leave the station’s exhaust ports so vulnerable to a missile attack?” there’s almost nothing in “Rogue One” that adds substance to the “Star Wars” realm. Fans steeped in the franchise’s vast universe of spin-off books and TV shows might get a kick out of seeing characters such as resistance fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and Empire commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) on the screen. Those who only know “Star Wars” from the movies, though, might wonder why an actor as formidable as Whitaker was cast in such a relatively minor role.
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A much bigger problem is the utter lack of presence by the movie’s two leads, Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, the two Rebellion soldiers leading the “Dirty Dozen”-style mission. This is the first “Star Wars” movie I’ve seen in which I couldn’t remember the names of the two main protagonists after it was over, an indication of how bland Jones and Luna are (and a testament to how critical the work by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega was to “The Force Awakens.”)
Even K-2SO, the scene-stealing military droid voiced by Alan Tudyk, doesn’t make much of an impression other than as a mirror-opposite of C3PO — this one is hulking, a brute warrior and prone to wisecracking.
“Rogue One” is the first “Star Wars” movie that doesn’t open with a blast of John Williams’ symphonic score (the music is by Michael Giacchino). It doesn’t have an opening crawl or even much use for the Force. The changes don’t pay off, though, because the movie doesn’t offer anything memorable enough to replace them. Sure, the sight of an AT-AT walker (or, technically, an AT-ACT walker) stomping down a beachfront, laser turrets blazing, is admittedly cool. The old-school practical effects are utterly convincing. But you know there’s something lacking in a new “Star Wars” picture when the only really great moments are all throwbacks to an earlier film. A movie can’t get by on fan service alone.
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker.
Director: Gareth Edwards.
Screenwriters: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy.
A Lucasfilm release. Running time: 133 minutes. War violence. Playing at area theaters.