The Death Star blew up before I was born. Its pink-and-yellow cloud left a residue on the culture. We've inherited Luke Skywalker's PTSD. Generations have witnessed that moment through rewinds and re-releases, and once mine grew old enough, we recreated it for ourselves with The Force Awakens' supersize revamp and now Rogue One's through-the-looking-glass reimagining of how it was done in the first place. Four decades after the damned thing first exploded, to see the killer ship's blueprint onscreen — a thin-sliced circle covered in scribbles — is to have visual proof that the last 38 years of galactic fantasies really just looks like an old record exhaustively remixed.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first spin-off flick allowed to separate from the main timeline of films that command Roman numerals. Presumably, it could transport audiences anywhere, dazzle us with planets and aliens we'd never need to see again, besides at the nearest toy store. Instead, the film rewinds back to the beginning — the literal beginning — to bore us with the backstory behind the first three sentences of Star Wars's opening crawl. It's for everyone who ever wondered, "Wait, what was the Rebels' first victory against the evil Galactic Empire, and how did Princess Leia get the plans to the Death Star?" Congratulations, curious folks: Director Gareth Edwards has scratched that itch and put everyone else to sleep with a heist thriller for which we've known the ending since 1977. He's been given the keys to explore a never-ending frontier. Instead, we're trapped on a round-trip cruise to the moon.
Some movies improve when you know the climax. The pleasures come from watching the puzzle pieces click into place. How will this new band of Rebels swipe Imperial engineer Galen Erso's (Mads Mikkelsen) schematics — and why haven't we heard of them before? The trouble is, we've seen all these puzzle pieces, too. There's the orphaned hero (Luke Skywalker, Rey, and now Felicity Jones's Jyn). There's the self-sacrificing mentor (Obi-Wan, Han Solo, and a new one I won't spoil). There's the comic relief robot and the brave pilot and the important message transmitted by hologram. There's that opening shot of a ship bellying above the screen, that scene in which the Death Star decimates a planet, that midpoint sequence in which a ship narrowly escapes the rubble, that vertiginous peek down the center of yet another of the Empire's endless towers of lights, and that foreboding moment when a character warns that they've "got a bad feeling about this." That's the 10th time we've heard that caution. No wonder Jyn hisses, "Quiet!"
But that line isn't for her. It's for us. The whole movie is. Edwards and the screenwriters have designed Rogue One around applause breaks for cameos and callbacks. We’ve all lost the point of the franchise. Audiences once packed theaters to gawk at the future; now, it’s to soak in the past. The emphasis is on packing in as much nostalgia as possible and tersely editing it together to resemble a film. The filmmakers barely seem to have developed the scenes, and the actors barely appear to be living in them. The quasi-romantic tension between Jyn and Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is a fizzle, and neither seems to have developed their character's motivations beyond glare and shoot.
Jones is a fine actress, but when miscast — as she is here, and as she was in The Theory of Everything as a worn-out mother-of-three — she can seem as flimsy-kneed as a baby deer. Here, she masks her sweetness with a cold stare that makes her character feel all surface, a Shrinky Dink laid on a green screen. She lacks Mark Hamill's bewilderment and Daisy Ridley's practicality. (Now there's a girl who felt like she had both space boots on the ground.) Instead of a dimensional role, she's been white-elephanted with Disney's default motivation — "Won't somebody help me find my daddy?" — which might have had emotional impact if the studio hadn't already foisted it on us in this year's The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Alice Through the Looking Glass, and Pete's Dragon.
Almost all of the life here comes, ironically, from a robot: the K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), who looks like a black-metal C-3PO with birthing hips. The K-2SO is an ex-Imperial droid reprogrammed with the soul of your mother when no one helps with the dishes. "What do I know? My specialty is just strategic analysis," he huffs when his advice is once again ignored. (A feeling that poor C-3PO, too, can share.) He's great at guilt trips and awful at being a robot. He can't even pretend to be a machine. When he's stopped by the guards while escorting Jyn and Cassian, he sputters, "I'm taking them to imprison them ... in prison!" Any flesh-and-blood person in the flick would have been more convincing.
At least there's a great buddy-cop dynamic between ponytailed fighter Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and his BFF Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind ninja who seems to have somehow teleported from a '70s Zatoichi adventure straight to deep space. There's a fun scene in which Chirrut dispatches a half-dozen stormtroopers with a stick just by hearing the crunch of their flimsy plastic boots. Minutes later, he's captured and the minions cover his head with a black bag. "Are you kidding me?" he snarks. "I'm blind!" The joke gets a laugh. It's the first one told by a human in the whole movie. But the scenes would have been better in reverse. How much cooler would it have been to see him blindfolded for a purpose, to surprise the bad guys with his echolocation skills?
Edwards's real purpose with the black bag is to make audiences recall images of Abu Ghraib. He's not just drawing visual inspiration from the last century of terrestrial wars, though he's doing plenty of that. Here, we see the Taliban in a glimpse of a crumbling desert statue of a Jedi, the kind of spiritual history they detonated for kicks. There's the Iraq War again in a shootout with snipers and IEDs, and a tropical skirmish that starts out looking like Vietnam and expands to the beaches of Normandy. Edwards is also trying, awkwardly, to make a modern type of hero movie, which in the current era means turning the heroes into cads. Here, the Rebel alliance is exposed as a mob of infighting fools who repeatedly sabotage themselves. When told that Mikkelsen's Death Star engineer — Jyn's long-lost father — is a possible defector, the Rebels decide it's best to have him killed. By contrast, when Americans learned the German scientists who built Hitler's rockets were on the lam, they scooped them up, resettled them in Arizona, and hired them to launch our space program.
This cross-examination of valor doesn't add much to the movie. But it does open the door for Rogue One's brain-scrambling cheers when Darth Vader inevitably returns to unleash his dark side. The audience whooped. Who wouldn't be thrilled to see our old frenemy back in action? Meanwhile, the CGI-recreated Grand Moff Tarkin (original actor Peter Cushing died in 1994) looks adorable with his new rosy dusting of blush. Yet, as Darth Vader’s death march continues and the good guys' corpses pile up, I felt as though the entire franchise had shut off its gravity. In 40 years, we've come full circle to the beginning, but everything is upside-down. Now we're cheering for the fascists? What planet are we on?