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Film review: "Rogue One" 

The first in a series of stand-alone, spin-off stories set in the Star Wars universe, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is director Gareth Edwards's spin on what a gritty war movie in that world might look like. Set just before "Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope," the story explains exactly how blueprints for the Galactic Empire's secret weapon, the Death Star, ended up in the hands of the Rebel Alliance. It's an entertaining story, but not really necessary in the grand scheme of things.

Gone is the gee-whiz excitement we associate with the big-budget space operas, as Edwards lends his film a much darker tone than any prior "Star Wars" film; this is the first that doesn't feel specifically made for young children. He also nixes the signature opening crawl accompanied by John Williams's iconic fanfare, and drops us straight into the action. The tonal shift is an interesting development for the franchise, and it might have even worked if writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy had given us interesting, memorable characters to get us invested in the story.

The tale revolves around steely outlaw Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who's recruited by the Rebel Alliance to aid in a mission to extract her engineer father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), from the hands of the Empire. Taken prisoner years prior by Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Galen was forced to become the reluctant architect of the planet-destroying Death Star and may be able to provide the Rebels with the necessary information to destroy it.

The Rebel mission is led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), though the core team gradually expands to include defecting Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); Chirrut Îmwe (Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen), a blind monk who's a devout believer in the Force; and Chirrut's heavily-armed companion, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). The comedic relief comes in the form of Cassian's droid and co-pilot K-2SO, voiced and performed with motion capture technology by Alan Tudyk.

The Star Wars films have always been driven by character more than plot, and J.J. Abrams nailed that aspect in last year's "The Force Awakens," delivering a fresh cast of characters that audiences instantly connected with. Here we get a "Dirty Dozen" band of fighters made up of "spies, saboteurs, assassins." These ground-level soldiers make a nice counterpoint to the prior installments larger-than-life heroes and Jedi, which could have added an interesting layer to the story, but the characters are all so thinly sketched that they barely register as people. We're told that they've done terrible things for the sake of the cause, but any real questioning of what justifies the more extreme methods of resistance is quickly brushed aside in favor of more explosions.

While the film suffers from pacing issues -- the first 20 minutes feel like a planet-jumping travelogue, while the middle section drags -- the film is most successful as a straight-up action movie. The entire last act is pretty terrific, filled with exciting, well-staged set pieces and plenty of the series' distinctive outer space dogfights. There's also a fantastic late scene involving Darth Vader that manages to bring real menace and fear back to the character.

Despite the forgettable characters, there's a resonant story about the sacrifice and heroism of a diverse band of rebels coming together against an all-powerful authoritarian regime. With its multicultural cast, it's great to see this beloved franchise grow more and more diverse as the years go on -- although it's worth noting that there has yet to be a woman of color in any significant role. Felicity Jones and Daisy Ridley of "The Force Awakens" have a certain physical similarity that hints that Disney may have decided there's a specific type of female hero which audiences most respond to.

Like "The Force Awakens," "Rogue One" is littered with winking callbacks and references to earlier films in the series, and while some arise organically from the story, many more feel distracting and out of place. The creative team seems so intent to hold onto the original trilogy as an anchor that it's impossible for them to pull up and go off in their own direction.

Plans for this series of stand-alone films appear steeped in a sense of nostalgia rather than a desire to bring new stories to audiences eager to explore the Star Wars universe. Sure there's a certain excitement in seeing the pieces fall into place, but by continuing to draw from the same well, there's a possibility that over-explaining the original stories will ultimately dilute their power.

That the next spin-off -- scheduled for release in 2018 -- will focus on the adventures of a young Han Solo does nothing to ease my fears.

I'm excited to see stories set in this universe that incorporate a variety of genres and tones, but have nothing to do with the Skywalker family saga. With "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," Disney has successfully launched both sides of its two-pronged reboot of the Star Wars cinematic universe, though it feels like this new series has yet to truly take off.

Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of "Jackie."

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