'Rogue One'

As the first Star Wars movie not about the Skywalkers or Solos, expectations for Rogue One were high. And though its last 45 minutes are perhaps the most shocking and adult of the series, nothing about this standalone space story stands out from the big-budget crowd.

The idea of "cinematic universes" changed the game for franchise moviemaking. It's no longer about sequels or even prequels; the goal is to create a world where numerous stories can intertwine and the whole process prints money for years. Marvel has become the gold standard here; DC remains the punching bag. But Rogue One, more than any other franchise entry, exposes how hollow this whole endeavor can be.

The movie exists to expand upon a key piece of Star Wars lore—how the Rebel Alliance stole the Death Star plans—and doesn't achieve much else. An extremely talented and diverse cast gets nothing to work with, character motivations are sparse if not nonexistent, and what sounded like an enticing plot summary ends up being a well-made bit of fan service.

Directed by Gareth Edwards of Monsters and Godzilla fame, Rogue One opens with a bit of backstory for protagonist Jyn (Felicity Jones) as her father (Mads Mikkelsen) is coerced by the Empire into working on a superweapon. After being saved from the Empire's weapons guru Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) by rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), we hop forward in time to the Rebel Alliance coaxing Jyn into finding her father and uncovering the plans for said superweapon. Teaming up with intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a ragtag bunch of other random buddies, she embarks on her planet-hopping journey.

And that's about it. The general story catalysts are there: find father, save galaxy, support your friends. But we learn nothing about who Jyn, Cassian, or Krennic really are. Jyn is a Reluctant Hero, Cassian is a vaguely Solo-esque Anti-Hero, and Krennic is a lackey of Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin. Much like The Force Awakens, the characters fit into well-defined molds; unlike The Force Awakens, they're not memorable or interesting. This is Rogue One's greatest failure: when you have a cast that includes Jones, Luna, Whitaker, Mendelsohn, and Riz Ahmed, you have brilliant actors and actresses in place to establish a whole new slice of this universe. Instead, Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy coast on their respective charms and achieve the bare minimum.

Then there's the original trilogy references. You've probably already heard about CGI Tarkin, which I found disorienting and unnecessary given that Peter Cushing died 22 years ago. Then there's the obligatory R2D2 and C3P0 appearances, plus visits to Yavin 4 to see Mon Mothma, Bail Organa, and General Jan Dodonna. There are plenty of enjoyable moments for nerds to geek out over, including several Darth Vader scenes that come close to saving the whole enterprise. But they're largely inaccessible instances aimed only at superfans; those unfamiliar with the Star Wars universe will be lost immediately.

There's been talk of Rogue One being a "great war movie," which seems to ignore all the strides modern war movies have made. What used to be rousing propaganda for our boys and girls in uniform is now a deep, oft-dark look at the horrors of war on the human psyche, something Edwards's film touches on but largely avoids. The last 45 minutes are brutal, especially in the context of a Star Wars movie, but being proceeded by 90 minutes of cartoonish space adventuring undercuts the ending's potential impact.

Essentially, Rogue One tries to have its cake and eat it too. All the Marvel directors thus far have mostly surrendered to the machine, telling fun stories with great casts and making the most of spectacles that exist only to get us to the next adventure. But Rogue One has no sequel, because it's called Star Wars and was released in 1977. It had a chance to be the rare outlier that shines on its own merits; instead, it fills in the gaps and goes through the motions before trying to wow us with an unexpected ending. Time will tell how much of this is Edwards's vision and how much was done at Disney's bidding, but what made it to theaters is not the first step this burgeoning franchise needed.