Movie review: 'Rogue One' takes dark turn into bright future for 'Star Wars'

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

"Rogue One" is a different kind of "Star Wars" movie, carving out new territory in the template while still comfortably entrenched in the franchise.

The first of numerous planned spin-off stories from the "Star Wars" universe takes some bold turns in tone and opens up the palette for future standalone installments. It's a unique experience, and a sometimes uneven one.

But, above all, it takes a darker turn that points to a bright future for these movies.

(General plot description follows, free of spoilers.)

Our first indication that we're in new territory is that "Rogue One" begins without the traditional opening crawl - or the iconic John Williams theme - so it's best to know where we are in the canon. The timeline is just a bit before "Episode IV."

As the Empire is nearing completion of its weapon of planetary destruction, the Death Star, the Rebellion is in search of hope.

Our central character is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a Rebel fighter with a personal motivation in this war that goes back to childhood.

A band of heroes is formed as a bold plan emerges to steal the plans for the Death Star and reveal its critical weakness.

Let's stop to applaud the first success of "Rogue One": It takes a punchline plot hole from the original "Star Wars" and turns it into a brilliantly executed central plot point.

Director Gareth Edwards ("Monsters," 2014's "Godzilla") takes his mission seriously, making the most straightforward war movie in the "Star Wars" universe to date.

The tone is more somber, and the seriousness of the stakes gives the whole affair added weight. The audience knows the outcome, but it somehow doesn't change the sense of peril. We get the very real senation that this is war, and sometimes that war gets very real.

The announcement of the casting of Felicity Jones made me giddy, and she lives up to my early excitement, leading a solid (and decidedly diverse) cast. Jyn joins Daisy Ridley's Rey as a strong female lead - a dire need in the genre.

"Rogue One" isn't without flaws. The tone is uneven in spots, trying to straddle new "Star Wars" territory but sometimes relying on the familiar a bit too much. The pacing - and a 2-hour-14-minute runtime - make this less friendly to younger audiences, although this one isn't aimed at kids and certainly isn't built to sell toys.

It's enough of a departure that I'm sure I'll need another viewing to gel my opinion (I'm giving it a half-star bump in rating in anticipation of that). But it's already apparent that Disney's plans for "Star Wars" are cause for excitement.

"Rogue One:

A Star Wars Story"

Now playing

3½ stars out of 4