If The Force Awakens was a shallow exercise in nostalgia, and the George Lucas-directed prequels were abominable CGI showcases, then Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie to feel truly connected to the original trilogy, especially the 1977 feature that started it all.
Part of this is by design: the bulk of Rogue One takes place mere days before Star Wars, so unlike the other entries, it has the burden of looking like 1977, or as close as 2016 is willing to get. And it succeeds. You can see it in the details: a couple characters have shaggier, '70s-style hairdos; the costumes wouldn't look out of place in the original film (though they hew closer to those in The Empire Strikes Back); even overworked composer Michael Giacchino masterfully apes the brassy excitement of John Williams' original score – better, frankly, than Williams did himself in the last four Star Wars films.
In fact, Rogue One works so well as a lead-in to Star Wars, in terms of action and plotting, that it makes the rest of the saga feel rather insular in comparison: just one long space opera about the dysfunctional Skywalker clan. What I like most about Rogue One is that it's about all the other people in the Galactic Rebellion. As underscored by a talented cast that's even more diverse than that in The Force Awakens, these people came from all walks of life, each risking everything to take down the Empire, for his or her own reasons. It really resonates, to the degree that, in retrospect, it's unfair that a whiny Tatooine farm boy should be the one to destroy the Death Star, instead of any of Rogue One's kick-ass rebels.
The script, by likable Hollywood scribes Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, is dense and plot-heavy, yet delivers the goods. The film also does a great job at "world-building", certainly better than The Force Awakens did. I wasn't initially thrilled about Gareth Edwards being tapped to direct this one, after his generic crack at Godzilla, but he proves capable of the task. Gareth, I take it all back.
Finally, though, I think it was a mistake – whether on Edwards' part, or on the part of new Star Wars parent Disney – to digitally reanimate the late Peter Cushing for the pivotal role of Grand Moff Tarkin, the Empire's man in charge of the Death Star. This CG Tarkin is overly detailed and his face moves inorganically, like a video game character. It's the one thing that takes you out of the movie. (Well, it's the first of two things, and anybody who's seen Rogue One all the way through knows what the other one is.) British actor Guy Henry, who actually looks and sounds something like Cushing, went through Tarkin's motions on set, then was digitally painted over. The result is distracting. It would have been better to have just slapped some old age makeup and a hairpiece on Henry, then run with it. Oh well. Maybe it stands out because the rest of the movie is so gritty and real – even the droids.