I had a lot of ... well let's call it anxiety about this one. After all, the debut of the first Star Wars anthology story marks a major transition for the franchise. The long gestation period of past movies (once 3 years between episodes not counting the major hiatus or spin-offs) has now officially been reduced so that a boardroom friendly annual release can be deployed. Playing it safe while using fan service nostalgia has become an obvious tactic. Why take risks when you can foster positive casual audience reception, while also keeping long term followers sated with things they know and love? But this level of jaded cynicism isn't entirely justified. Well maybe some of it. But there's still plenty of room for the basic ingredients that add up to a good time in front of the silver screen. But just how many of those are included this time around? And how much of this story really needed telling in the first place?
The opening text crawl from the franchise progenitor in 1977 sets the stage here. As you might remember it offers a prologue describing how a small band of rebels are fighting an evil empire, and have recently stolen the plans for their biggest and baddest war machine. There's not a lot of detail to go on here, is it really wise to expand a handful of floating yellow words into an entire screenplay? Director Gareth Williams (Monsters) certainly thought it was worth a shot. So now we are introduced to just who these freedom fighters were, who was working on the space station itself, and how this all comes together in a plot about absent fathers, sarcastic robots and unkempt heroes. If you ever wondered just what kind of box those plans were kept in then this is the story for you.
Our main hero Jyn (Felicity Jones) has seen some hard times in life, and finds herself on the wrong side of the law in a period in which the remnants of the old Republic haven't yet been swept away. It seems her dad might have been caught up in some kind of nefarious plan several years earlier, and those who'd like to see the universe free of scary walking machines want her to help find him and aid them in striking a blow to the imperial forces. It's not a story which ever needed telling, but it's often entertaining enough to work. She soon joins with a rag tag group of warriors and mercenaries and they planet hop between different action set pieces in a race to do the right thing. This does unfortunately spoil the pace of the adventure, which starts off as a slow build up to the big pyrotechnic moments but soon throws in a lot more scenery changes and new faces. They have a lot to cover but it's a simple storyline that could have been worked out more efficiently.
In terms of the actual characters they all get some screen time and some of these moments are more effective than others. Jyn is likeable but lacks real depth. It feels like parts of her development are missing as she grows from a child to an adult since her mentor Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) seems to have a larger past they've skipped over. He gets a few good scenes with her, but it's clear that they had more to say which has been wasted on the cutting room floor. The other stand out members of the group are Chirrut (Donnie Yen) a blind monk who fights to preserve the memory of the Jedi order even if he's not really a member, and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) the robotic member of the crew. They provide some fun in both the action sequences and the comedy moments even if some joke punchlines are far too blunt. But they are nice additions to this world. Shades of grey are applied to characters like rebel fighter Cassian (Deigo Luna) who has less than righteous orders, and even the villain Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) gets a few scenes where his human desires for recognition surface. It's just a shame this is all done with so quickly.
A lot of the other elements scream classic Star Wars, while some are actually ... right out of classic Star Wars. I mean what was anyone expecting? The toy box is overflowing with things to choose from. There are plenty of used space ships, masked creatures and bustling streets where oppressive forces patrol in white plate armour. The imposing designs of the original capital ships are mixed against the new look soldiers and locations. There's a lot of detail and texture to it all, and the film looks good with a desaturated natural look to a lot of sequences. The fan service does go too far in several moments unfortunately, and there are too many distracting inclusions that just throw things people recognise into the centre of the frame. It really pushes the boat out in terms of CGI characters which is disappointing, and while some fans will enjoy these moments I felt like they didn't progress the story and are never realistic looking enough to warrant showing in the first place. They tried, but they seem to have forgotten that this is a do or do not kind of world.
Ultimately this is an interesting mix, but it's never blended together well enough to feel like a smooth journey. The high points are great but the low points grind things to a halt. The action is great and the design work is nice, but like the music and some of the character names... the film itself feels forgettable. As a prequel it lacks uniqueness right from the start, but the execution could have been stronger when the big dramatic moments in the third act feel so rushed instead of earned. More character development and a more straightforward narrative would iron a lot of these problems out. Those looking for something which takes the war aspect and focuses more on it than previous instalments will be satisfied. The big space battles and land based fire fights are present and correct with a new level of modern visual fidelity. It's never totally absurd but there is a kind of choppy feeling in some places where the old space opera ideas clash against the grittier elements. It's often fun and exiting to look at, but the are times at which the a little more humanity would have gone a long way.