This is the prequel you are looking for!
You thought it was Hollywood greed when they unnecessarily split Breaking Dawn and Mocking Jay into two movies? You thought it was milking the cow dry when they attempted to stretch Peter Jackson's 300-page children's tale into a three-part six-hour multi-layered epic, key word being "attempted"?
So how about we take that one paragraph from the original Star Wars' freakin' opening crawl, make it into a 130+ minutes feature to which everybody knows the ending, and make a billion dollars at the box office? Sounds like a plan? Here we go!
Rogue One tells the story of a very racially diverse group of Rebel spies journeying to steal the plans of the Empire's planet-blowing not-so-secret-after-all secret weapon, the Death Star. When Episode IV: A New Hope opened with the iconic Stardestroyer chase scene, we were instantly thrown into the middle of action with only a vague feeling that there might be a story preceding this. Guess what? There is! And a pretty good one! But is that enough?
As the first of many anthology spin-off films up and coming (Disney is basically printing money at this point), Rogue One makes a point of differing itself from the familiar Star Wars saga, and in that it succeeds in many ways. Expect some iconic elements synonymous to the brand to be missing. Lightsabers and the Force usages are sidelined to make way for the central theme of this movie: war.
The original Star Wars was the story of an adventurous farmboy who realized he had a greater destiny, met a bunch of eccentric friends, rescued a princess, finally defeated an evil empire and won a medal. Point being it was, at its core, a coming-of-age good-vs-bad story, and even when the Rebel pilots were dropping like flies, we were still going "Yippie, adventure!!" But you know what? It wasn't a happy adventure for Gold Leader, or Biggs, or poor Porkins. Rogue One isn't afraid to explore the dark side.
As with The Force Awakens from 2015, I walked into the theatre tentatively afraid of what I was about to see, although to a much lesser extent. Two hours and ten minutes later, I walked out of it in a trance, grinning like an drunken idiot, and proceeded to aimlessly wander about without any sense of destination for an hour, reliving some stand-out moments while they were still fresh in my mind.
Having only seen it once, I can at least confirm it was a more positive initial reaction than my first time seeing TFA, which I loved more with each viewing. One of the prominent reasons is that TFA, for me, had a perfect first act, a very strong second act, and a good but problematic final act. So even though I was beyond hyped to see it ending with Rey finding Luke, the entitled, picky fanboy in me wanted something to be handled differently. Rogue One was exactly the opposite.
Not to say the beginning of Rogue One was bad though, in fact, not a single moment lost my attention. Although pacing was uneven, as it goes so fast at some times yet drags a bit a others, besides Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera might divide some fans, even though it's certainly nice to see a character brought to live-action from the animated TV show. But from that point on, the movie simply got better, and better, and better!
The final half hour or so of Rogue One is like a Star Wars fan's wet dream come true and then some, featuring quite possibly the best space battle we have ever seen. It was only through sheer power of will that I did not allow myself to laugh out loud like Scott Lang when he turned into Giant Man in Civil War, during certain awe-inducing battle scenes. And just when you think it was over, the final few minutes will make sure to melt even Wolverine's adamantium heart.
Before I actually saw the movie, my biggest concern from the trailers was "dialogue". For a franchise that has spawned more catchphrases than can be healthily quoted (some for the wrong reason), Star Wars has a pretty ugly history of bad deliveries of even worse lines. Granted, most of which courtesy to George Lucas overexerting himself as a writer, but the trailers of Rogue One didn't make an optimist out of me.
Which is why this movie is this one-time case where I am actually happy for the false advertising, because a lot of the crappiest lines are nowhere to be seen, most notably "Is this a rebellion? I rebel." Boy, she's a rogue one, isn't she? #winkwink
The dialogue IN the movie never bothered me, although notably, for a movie that severely downplayed the Force, the phrase "the Force" was uttered more than the rest of the movies combined! No need to be alarmed though, you'll understand when you watch it.
But I know there's a Sith Lord you might be particularly interested to see on screen. Without revealing anything specific, let me just say that when he showed up for about 2 seconds in a 3-minute trailer, it was a somewhat accurate representation for his involvement in terms of screen time. But rest assured, Vader fans won't be disappointed.
There is a particular technology applied by this movie that will become the focus of everyone's arguments, but for fear of spoilers I will refrain from talking about it until a later spoiler discussion. Although I am nowhere close to being qualified to talk about special effects, my layman's opinion is that this movie challenged the boundary of special effects more than TFA did, which really is another Star Wars tradition when you think about it.
Bringing in Gareth Edwards, the relatively inexperienced director who made 2014's divisive Godzilla reboot, was a risk that paid off in the long run. His talent at demonstrating massive size and scale is a work of wonder, bringing some stunning visual treats. Although I hesitate to give him all the credits because of the turmoil that has been happening behind the scenes.
It's no secret that the movie's production was a rocky journey, especially when they brought in Tony Gilroy to handle the reshoots that had us so worried. It Tony's contribution indeed was focused on the third act, as rumored, and since the final third was 12 out of 10 perfect, we really don't know enough to form a definitive opinion. Even the movie's scoring session proved turbulent, as Disney apparently disliked Alexandre Desplat's original output, and hired Michael Giacchino, who did an admirable John Williams tribute soundtrack in the mere four weeks he was given, but unfortunately there's no Rey's Theme to hum at the end of the day.
To wrap it up, Rogue One is an incredibly entertaining and welcome addition in the vast galaxy of Star Wars. It more than fulfilled its mission to justify its own existence, sell us the idea of more spin-offs, and, well, be good. Probably due to reshoots and re-editings, the second half is decidedly more intense and will be what you take away, while certain characters and brief sequences in the first half feel like they would fit better a different Star Wars movie.
Nevertheless, where it works, and most of it works, it is the best that Lucasfilm has ever offered, which is enough to rank Rogue One high up among the best Star Wars movies. It has original characters and central plot that serves this universe well, and, unlike former prequels, even manages to make the impeccable A New Hope better. It's impossible to really judge a Star Wars movie until after at least two years of multiple viewings, so currently I would give a initial score of 8.5/10.
For non Star Wars fans, Rogue One is a relatively stand-alone story that can be followed from scratch, although I would heavily recommend you at least watch A New Hope in preparation.
Scribbling Geek from Singapore on December 27, 2016:
I think the great thing about Rogue One is that while it's obviously an attempt to milk the franchise, it does a decent job of filling in gaps fans have been wondering about for years.