Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ★★★½

Watching The Force Awakens was like being a kid again and discovering how simple the toys that amused you as a baby were. The dull, by the numbers imitation numbed me more than anything. It's a plastic playhouse.

Rogue One is more like the movie I was hoping for from the resurrected Star Wars monolith (which is still wired and botoxed enough for the open casket), a movie with imagination and grit. Some are complaining about how un-Star Wars it is, as if they're not already getting a whole trilogy that's been Xeroxed straight from the movies they know and love. As A Star Wars Story, not the Star Wars story, there's room for Rogue One to diverge a little. No opening crawl, no lightsabers, The Force as neither cell mutation nor wizardry but religious faith. All I wanted from The Force Awakens was new Star Wars, but it was just the old one, down to the planets. Rogue One blazes ahead.

They're right, it's a Star war flick: a men-on-a-mission plot, an antifascist cause, an insurgency vs. a tank, grenades, genocide, collaboration, weapons of mass destruction, and an in-the-shit perspective that makes it hard to follow until the plot narrows and you grasp the characters. To my eyes, the darkness is perfectly calibrated. Oh, it hits, but it doesn't get Nolan about it. Take K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid who's big, independent, and on the spectrum. I don't remember the prequels too well, but I believe this is the most seriously the film franchise has ever taken robot servitude. Did the prequels spare a thought for the sentience of the battle droids? The most upset we've been on behalf of animated hunks of metal to this point is when C-3PO is dismantled by ugnaughts, a bullying that heightens the dread of Cloud City. When K-2SO goes up against unreprogrammed imperial droids, it's a hell of a lot more complicated. Ditto the Death Star. Alderaan is a bloodless annihilation. Rogue One follows that space laser down to the ground as it destroys a holy city in the desert along with all its inhabitants. You'd think from some of these complaints that it plays like Saving Private Ryan or something, but the corners are smoothed for the kids. Rogue One lets its points land and gets on with the adventure. Just because it's a little bit darker than the usual Star Wars doesn't make it Son of Saul.

They muffed Tarkin, no question. And the characters are thin, though that doesn't exactly tank the "space-fantasy The Steel Helmet for kids" vibe. The cast diversity is getting dragged from the left for feeling profit-driven, an argument that deserves the same rebuttals as every other affirmative action debate. Rogue One presents an authentically plural society up against the forces of fascism, an ancient city where some still believe in the Force, an industrial outpost in an asteroid belt, planet Hawaii, the perfect role for Forest Whitaker, a deep net of fraternity that ultimately binds the many uncomfortable allies of the Rebellion, and more elegiac samurai flick imagery than you can shake a stick at. Except for all the corny non-sequitur dialogue, I'd say it gave me hope.