Similar to Edwards's previous blockbuster, a remake of Godzilla, there's a lot to like and really appreciate in Rogue One. Also similar to Godzilla, however, are issues of tone, pacing, editing, and story, especially with the first third or so. The film begins without the traditional opening crawl, which isn't so deterring since it's meant to be a new kind of experimental adventure for the franchise. After Jyn and her family is fully established (along with some tragedy added in), the film jumps ahead 13 years and suddenly begins planet-hopping all over the place to throw in most of the characters that she's already going to meet anyway. It's extremely distracting and doesn't allow for the film to experience the story fully from Jyn's point of view. Granted, the main plot eventually focuses on all of the rebel spies who go after the Death Star plans, but because Rogue One specifically begins with Jyn's backstory and alludes to the possibility that she is the central main character of the story, it becomes confusing to watch and a muddled mess. Rogue One targets the idea of building its worldly identity as fast as possible to set up the stakes later on as opposed to allowing the audience to experience it gradually as Jyn does.
The main characters themselves are a mixed bag. Jyn is really the only one with a fully developed backstory and identity, while the rest are the typical stereotypes - the mystical one who believes in a greater power, the smuggler rogue type, the snarky droid, etc. - that join her on this grand mission. Star Wars, of course, has always been about archetypal characters with definable personalities, but over the course of several films, the now-iconic heroes and villains do change and go through several hardships with every obstacle they face, becoming wiser and much more defined along their journey. With Rogue One, this is impossible to accomplish with the main cast because it's pretty clear what happens to them at the end of the film. Since these characters in particular have only appeared in one film, there's not enough time allowed to them to make a truly lasting and connecting impression. Half of the new characters' names are completely forgettable, for example.
To their advantage, they are extremely likeable - Alan Tudyk as the droid is one of the best parts of Rogue One, for example - and they each have unique identities albeit without much development at all. The only problem is that since the story is so connected to going exactly to the beginning of A New Hope with as much detail as possible, there isn't a chance to spend enough time with these characters to care about their plight because, again, it becomes obvious what happens to all of them in the end. The small exception is Jyn thanks to being given a backstory regarding the relationship with her father. However, because of this, the journey these new characters undertake (as iconic as it is in setting up A New Hope) doesn't have the same level of intensity as Luke's quest to end the tyranny of the Empire overall, or when the rebels do combat the Death Star at the end of A New Hope. The stakes in Rogue One simply aren't high enough because it's obvious how the film is going to end.
The further Rogue One progresses, however, the better it gets. Overall, from a visual perspective, it's absolutely gorgeous. All of the planets, the settings, the sets, the models used, and the cinematography is beautiful, and the scale and size of the film is enormous!! No Star Destroyer has ever been seen looming so large since The Empire Strikes Back, making the ship in The Force Awakens look like child's play. On top of this, the Death Star is done with justice. The production crew really got this massive superweapon right, and it's also once again an incredible feat of terror to see this thing fire. It not only feels like the war film Edwards wanted to make, but it eventually does have remnants of the classic Star Wars idealogy, all of which ultimately works.
Then there's the nods made to A New Hope and other films, whether it's in the cameos, Michael Giacchino's bombastic score, or the designs of the ships. It really feels like Rogue One could have been made in 1977 as an aside to this classic Star Wars film and still look this impressive. C-3PO and R2-D2 make a brief but quirky cameo. Darth Vader, of course, returns along with the ever-likable ominous undertones of James Earl Jones's voice. Even Grand Moff Tarkin is resurrected (with a CGI replication of Sir Peter Cushing and some impressive voicework), and in all honesty, the CGI work done for him is okay. It's not the greatest visual effects work done with computers (Supreme Leader Snoke in The Force Awakens looks slightly better), but it successfully avoids the uncanny valley for the most part and isn't that awful. Apart from this, Jimmy Smits even comes back reprising his role as Bail Organa from the prequel trilogy, while Genevieve O'Reilly (who plays Mon Mothma in a deleted scene in Revenge of the Sith) also returns. Forest Whitaker plays Jyn's guardian/mentor/acquaintance Saw Garrera, pulled directly from The Clone Wars television series and given a new sense of purpose after those events in his life. It's incredibly great to see him onscreen as well, true to the character that he was in The Clone Wars and also different in the sense that he is much older now with a bit more experience and some paranoia.
Darth Vader has only two scenes in Rogue One, which may seem underwhelming to most people but is actually one of the film's strengths so that he ultimately doesn't overshadow the main plot of the film. The first scene is of his interaction with the film's main villain, Orson Krennic, including an appearance of his actual body (deformed from his injuries in Revenge of the Sith!) healing in a foggy bacta tank. This scene is purely Darth Vader; his ominous presence, snarky undertones, and sinister motives remind exactly why he's been hailed as one of the greatest villains of all time. He even gets one hokey bit of dialogue at the very end of the scene, in possibly one of the funniest moments of the entire movie and harkening back to previous films' dialogue in the series. The second scene, which won't be as detailed here, demonstrates an inkling of his tremendous power, lightsaber included. It's finally great to see this on the big screen for the first time and is extremely well done, showing off a side of Vader never actually seen of this magnitude before in this medium. However, it can be underwhelming for those who have seen his same powers in the multiple video games featuring the villain as well as the ever-popular series Star Wars Rebels.
Then there's the score brought by the first person beyond John Williams to write for a live-action Star Wars film. Michael Giacchino, with only four-and-a-half weeks to write over 90 minutes of music, has done a damn impressive job. Given the insane time constraints he had to compose all of the music, then record and mix together everything with the film, Rogue One could have had a much worse score. It's not as memorable as much of the legendary music the franchise has been associated with, but it really feels like classic Star Wars symphonic music, especially with nods to both underutilized cues and themes in A New Hope and even The Empire Strikes Back. The battle music in the second half onward is a powerhouse feat and extraordinary.
Rogue One is by no means an awful film. There's so much to like about it, especially as it gets near the end, that it's worth watching multiple times and has that classic feeling of the original trilogy. If there weren't so many glaring issues with the first forty-five minutes or so, and if that chunk was as impressive as the entire second half of the film, Rogue One would absolutely be ranked up there with both A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. As it stands, however, it's probably right there with The Force Awakens. It's clear that a lot of love, care, and consideration was put into creating the film, and it really tries to push the series into a new and darker direction. Overall, it succeeds through many ways in this regard and is just enough to warrant more of that for future films.
Rogue One is not the perfect Star Wars film, but is definitely a bold and fresh start well-needed for a galaxy far, far away.