The great mystery of “Rogue One” — the big payoff, the thing people like me would be pilloried for divulging, the puzzle you will congratulate yourself for solving — is where it fits in with the rest of the “Star Wars” cycle. There are scattered hints early on, and later appearances by familiar characters that elicit chuckles of recognition from fans. The very last shot tells us exactly where we are, and why we should have cared about everything we just saw.
Whether that is enough — whether the fractures in the Rebel Alliance and the power struggles in the imperial ranks quicken our pulses and engage our emotions — is the big question, but it really isn’t a question at all. Millions of people will sit through this thoroughly mediocre movie (directed with basic competence by Gareth Edwards from a surprisingly hackish script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) and convince themselves that it’s perfectly delightful. It’s so much easier to obey than to resist. The spoiler warning sent by the Disney empire instructed journalists to “continue to be our partners on this journey,” and defiance is unthinkable, even if “partner” is taken as a synonym for “shill.”
But the injunction not to ruin anyone’s good time by “revealing spoilers and detailed story points” is itself revealing, an indication of the meager and disposable pleasures this movie is meant to provide, and also of the low regard its makers have for the audience. It hasn’t always been this way, of course. The first “Star Wars” trilogy had a fresh, insurgent energy, and learning the names of all those planets and galactic adventurers has seemed, to generations of fans, like a new and special kind of fun.
Now, though, it is starting to feel like drudgery, a schoolbook exercise in a course of study that has no useful application and that will never end. “Rogue One,” named for the call sign of an imperial cargo ship appropriated by rebel fighters, is the opposite of that vessel. Masquerading as a heroic tale of rebellion, its true spirit is Empire all the way down. Like the fighters on the planet Scarif, which is surrounded by an all-but-impenetrable atmospheric shield, you are trapped inside this world, subjected to its whims and laws. You can’t escape, because it is the supposed desire to escape that brought you here in the first place.
Maybe I’m exaggerating. The cast is wonderful. Felicity Jones is a fine addition to the “Star Wars” tradition of tough-minded, quick-thinking heroines. She plays Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist whose allegiances are a little ambiguous. Not at all ambiguous is Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, a marvel of sneering, vainglorious villainy in an impeccable white uniform, complete with a cape that billows behind him when he strides down a starship catwalk.
Jyn’s idealistic Jedi-ish tendencies are at first checked by a hint of Bogart-esque cynicism. She’s suspicious of the rebels and contemptuous of the Empire, and has complicated feelings about Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), the extremist militant who cared for her in her father’s absence. When a mission announces itself — I don’t think I’m supposed to say too much about it, other than that it’s highly perilous and requires a lot of planet-hopping and aerial battling — Jyn gathers up an appealing, motley guerrilla crew. There’s a renegade imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), a hard-boiled resistance type (Diego Luna), a blind monk (Donnie Yen) and a bearded berserker (Wen Jiang). And naturally, a wisecracking droid, speaking in the dry, sarcastic tones of the indispensable Alan Tudyk.
All the pieces are there, in other words, like Lego figures in a box. The problem is that the filmmakers haven’t really bothered to think of anything very interesting to do with them. A couple of 9-year-olds on a screen-free rainy afternoon would come up with better adventures, and probably also better dialogue. Plots and subplots are handled with clumsy expediency, and themes that might connect this movie with the larger Lucasfilm mythos aren’t allowed to develop.
You’re left wanting both more and less. There are too many characters, too much tactical and technical explanation, too much pseudo-political prattle. And at the same time, there isn’t quite enough of the filial dynamic between Galen and Jyn, and not enough weight given to the ethical and strategic problems of rebellion. When might ends justify means? What kind of sacrifice is required in the service of a righteous cause?
Popular art — “Star Wars” included — has often proved itself capable of exploring these kinds of questions with clarity, vigor and even a measure of nuance. But “Rogue One” has no such ambitions, no will to persuade the audience of anything other than the continued strength of the brand. It doesn’t so much preach to the choir as propagandize to the captives, telling us that we’re free spirits and partners on the journey. The only force at work here is the force of habit.
‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ is rated PG-13 for endless war. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes.