In my youth, there were two eternal mysteries that could keep a would-be philosopher up at night. The first was how they got the caramel into the Caramilk bar; the second was why the guys who built the planet-destroying Death Star included a fatal weakness at its core.
The latter simmering cultural question has now been solved by Lucasfilm, as the Star Wars franchise produces its second offering since its multibillion-dollar acquisition by Disney in 2012.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is intended as a prequel to the original 1977 Star Wars movie (A New Hope), and it explains how the plans for the Empire's superweapon came into the hands of the Rebel Alliance. So we all know where this movie should end, with a young woman in a white robe and a funny hairdo hurriedly secreting the Death Star plans inside a drum-shaped robot. But where and how should it begin?
In familiar terrain but more darkly depicted, as it turns out.
Once again, we meet an isolated farming family on a minor planet as their peaceable existence is destroyed by Imperial forces, leaving the little Jyn Erso orphaned.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and she has grown into a toughened survivor not particularly committed to either side in this civil war – until her encounter with the handsome young rebel commander Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his mouthy droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk).
The adult Jyn is played as energetic and earnest by Felicity Jones and while the decision to feature another female hero is very welcome, her performance is largely indistinguishable from Daisy Ridley's work as Rey in The Force Awakens last year. The two English actresses look rather similar and both are playing women characterized as spunky skeptics won over to the good fight.
Indeed, as Disney mines the golden franchise once more, there is a strong risk of steeply diminishing artistic rewards. Last year, The Force Awakens, a sequel to the original trilogy, proved far too enamoured with the Star Wars legacy. But if its many purposeful borrowings and witty quotations often suffered by comparison to the original, they were at least handled with humour and panache.
Here, the comedy is flatter, the familiar story of generational guilt and idealism pitted against opportunism is less developed, and the tone is significantly darker; in that last regard, Rogue One more closely resembles the excruciating Clone Wars trilogy of the 2000s, although it never embarrasses itself the way those flaccid movies did.
Instead, as Jyn and Cassian scheme to steal the Death Star plans from the Empire, what director Gareth Edwards produces is a loud and busy war movie. It features countless and confusing explosions on the ground and in the air, like so many Lego sets exploding into millions of pieces, without showing enough heart at the centre of the film to emotionally animate it. The Star Wars franchise has always drawn heavy – sometimes heavy-handed – parallels between the Empire and Nazism; the most interesting aspect of Rogue One is that now the other side is also associated with the Second World War, as rebel soldiers wearing the khaki helmets of American GIs die on the beaches of a distant planet.
Well, we know this is a doomed crew (at least if we have followed the franchise's story) but the filmmakers seemed almost hesitant to make them lovable or funny enough that we can cry for them. The two fighters played by Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as a blind martial-arts genius and the gun-toting heavy who has his back are not given enough space to establish their friendship in an audience's heart. Similarly, Jyn and Cassian's romance is unexploited while her moral trajectory from ambivalence to commitment is underdeveloped.
Meanwhile, the minor cameos by familiar Star Wars figures are fleeting; there are few new interesting aliens and little of the sweeping Earth-like geography that has helped humanize a universe otherwise made up of hard edges and infinite space. Only Tudyk's dry humour in the role of the tactless droid K-2S0 makes Edwards's darkly reductivist approach occasionally seem smarter rather than lesser.
In the end, this hardening of the franchise seems likely to alienate both the fans and the uninitiated.
Certainly, as the holidays approach, you can't accuse Rogue One of being sugary seasonal fare. Pass the Caramilk already.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens Dec. 16, with select evening screenings Dec. 15.