Before I (mildly) gush about this movie, let's get something straight right away: Rogue One is not, as heralded, a "stand-alone" chapter, no matter the pretense. Frankly, I was surprised at how much connection was drawn and old friends reintroduced. The fact of the matter is that, without the romance and nostalgia of the original Star Wars films, Rogue One would seem like exactly what it is: a better than average, family-friendly war movie in space with some puppets. But there's an indisputable magic to this franchise, which elevates this installment also to a higher level.
Rogue One is definitely better than any of the second three Star Wars movies by far; however, I'd take the rapturous response from most SW lovers with just the tiniest grain of salt. It's quite good, but take the hype in stride.
The story is buoyed by a truly appealing cast of new characters beautifully essayed by future celebrities. My personal favorite is Chirrut Imwe, a blind Asian with an extraordinary connection to The Force, portrayed by Chinese martial arts star, Donnie Yen. And, yes, some surprise cameos of actors/characters (both dead and alive) take place to stretch the boundaries of CGI.
I won't say who, but a long-dead movie star shows up for a considerable amount of screen time to play a supporting player. The technology is ALMOST there, but there's still something dead in the eyes that gives the process away. Still, this is the most ambitious use of digitally recreating an actor to date, and it's damn good. We may yet get to see Judy Garland do MAME onscreen. (That may be the gayest sentence I've ever written ... or not.)
As for the "darker tone" promised for this project ... yeah, okay, I guess it's a little darker, but you could still take a ten year old and not worry. According to insider gossip, Rogue One did not test well with preview audiences, and reshoots took place to brighten up the proceedings a touch. This may have inspired some of the appearances of old favorite friends from films past. Maybe. The "darkness" rap possibly comes from the fact that there's a tremendous amount of death going on here. It's of the bloodless variety, but you still may be surprised how many characters won't be back for a sequel. Unless, of course, digitally reborn which certainly isn't out of the question anymore.
The beginning of the movie takes off like a jet, the second act drags a little, and the last half hour is dynamic and exciting through to a boffo finale that lights up the sky, literally. What slows the narrative down is a near slavish attention to "tasks" that must be completed before the story can continue -- kind of like a video game -- and it gets somewhat frustrating at times.
If you've never cared for these movies, this one won't convert you. But if you've liked any single one of the previous seven films you will, most likely, be charmed by this one. You don't have to be super fan to love this, but it sure wouldn't hurt.