I remember this one getting a whole lot of flack upon its release due to, what for me, seemed like minor details. Things like the fact that there was no famous 'Star Wars' opening crawl, or the fairly poor CG rendering of certain characters were very open to ridicule, but a lot of people overlooked a lot of good about the film, including incredible visuals (other than character rendering), a band of likable characters, and a cool story that acts as a prologue to 'New Hope'. As most who have seen it already know, you could watch this, follow it with 'New Hope', and it would make perfect sense.
The film opens with shadows of what's to come, as Imperial weapons developer, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) approaches research scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to get him to finish his work on the Death Star - at this point, the Empire's secret, planet-killing weapon, of which little is known. During a confrontation, Erso is taken, but his young daughter, Jyn (Beau Gadsdon/Felicity Jones) escapes into hiding, eventually found by Rebel extremist, Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker). We do, however, learn very quickly that their ways part over the years of Jyn growing up.
Fast-forward 15 years, where we meet ex-Empire cargo pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), taking a message recorded by Galen to Gerrera. Within the holographic message, later revealed, it tells us what we already know - that the Death Star has a weak point. This is the first example of one of the "Star Wars Stories" that finally settles the story on why the Empire had a known weakness in their planet-killing space station.
In the meantime, Rebel Alliance officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) learn of the Death Star, and free Jyn from and imperial labor camp in hopes that she'll stand with the alliance, and find and rescue her father, so as to learn more about the Death Star. On Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO's journey to learn more about the deadly space station, they come across a blind warrior of spirit, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his mercenary friend, the heavy-hitting Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) who aid them on their quest.
Meanwhile still, we also get a brief history of how Grand Moff Tarken (a CG-rendered Peter Kushing voiced by Guy Henry) takes control of the Death Star project, and ends up playing second banana to Vader in 'New Hope'. And speaking of Vader (James Earl Jones), he shows up in this too, occupying two scenes. One where Vader shows how intimidating he can be, as he speaks to Krennic, and one where he shows his skills with the force and a lightsaber, and it's an awesome sequence. He's not in it much, but when he is, he really occupies the screen.
I spoke of incredible visuals earlier, and I stick by that. Despite the fact that some of the character rendering was pretty rough, I would say its completely made up for by the action sequences in general. Things happen here and there throughout the first while, but the film completely takes off once you hear Jyn say the words "may the force be with us". It's all followed by on-ground assault, and soe of the most epic-looking space battle sequences in the 'Star Wars' library - and I'm dead serious. Some of the camera angles they get for a lot of the flying is incredible, rivaled only perhaps by 'Revenge of the Sith's opening sequence or the end of 'Return of the Jedi'. But honestly, I think I'd dub this my favorite 'Star Wars' film for space battles.
Some complaints about the film I thought actually helped it. The lack of an opening crawl was fine by me, as this was just a side story. It's even more forgiving when you realize that the end of this bridges into 'New Hope', which has its own opening crawl that basically tells a very quick version of this entire movie. Lack of lightsabers was another weird complaint; as if it couldn't be 'Star Wars' without them. But I was always of the mind that this was something that finally steered us away from all of that, and we got to see some of the more common folk be heroes for a change. This was really the first time we got something like that, and 'Solo' and 'The Mandalorian' would thankfully follow suit.
Another thing I always kinda wondered about people's criticisms have to do with the diversity of the cast. The 'Fast & Furious' franchise became so widely known to have its diverse characters act as a family, and it was one of the best selling points of the film. I don't find a lot of people speaking of the massive diversity here. Jyn (English), Cassian (Mexican), Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus (Chinese), Bodie (Pakistani), the list goes on. I remember it seeming like a big deal at the time, but it was soon kinda tossed aside. It was still a 'Star Wars' film, and 'Star Wars' fans are rabid enough to overlook such things if other things don't go their way... like a stupid CG face.
In the grand scheme of 'Star Wars' films, this one's a personal favorite. It's a bold story about wartime struggles, and the idea of making the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. It really does get tense around the last half hour or so of the film, and it'll leave an impression on you as long as you can see it for the story it is, and not just its technical errors. Honestly, I know I bring it up a lot, but people went way too overboard on the CG faces of Tarken and *cameo that may be a spoiler but not really*. They didn't look the best, but so much of the rest of the movie is so well done that it was actually incredibly easy for me to overlook it. It was pretty much everything I wanted to see and more, and I'd still recommend it to any 'Star Wars' noobs to check out before getting into the original trilogy.