Finally got to see it yesterday. Even going late, I managed to walk in with nothing in the way of spoilers and in fact had managed to get by without having even watched more than bits of the trailers.
I walked out with my faith that a Star Wars movie produced after the 1980's could be good.
A good movie has to be interesting. That sounds simple enough, but simple things end up being the hardest. In order for the movie as a whole to be interesting, the parts have to be as well. Story. Characters. Settings. They don't all have to be uniformly spectacular, but if one fails to make the grade by too much, it's noticeable and disproportionately drags the end result down. For example, the settings in the prequels were excellent and the story was, if a bit predictable, decent. Yet the characters were terribly executed from Jar-Jar to Anakin, to the silly love story with Padme. While a bit better, the Force Awakens also suffered from a Mary Sue main character and a recycled story. It did better than I through III, but missed the bar set by the original trilogy.
Then Rogue One came in and nailed it. First, the settings. Obviously, I've never had a problem with the settings in any Star Wars movie (except on a scientific level, but I can suspend disbelief). But R1 showed a simply amazing variety. Everything from space stations besides the Death Star to a beautiful atoll. And then there was the actual space combat. For a series called Star Wars, the prequels didn't have all that much, well, space! A couple of short scenes in Phantom Menace and then the Chancellor rescue in Sith, and that's it. R1 had an honest to God fleet battle! One we actually see from start to finish.
Next, story. Again, I have to applaud Edwards for it. Obviously, there were a few parts that felt forced (no pun intended). I'm looking at you giant rebel "Let's Surrender" conference! But it's hard to be perfect, and it helped make the rest of the story better, so net gain. Every action had a clear purpose behind it, and there weren't any moments that jumped out as defying reason. The movie also had arguably the hardest piece of the timeline to fill. Cannon before and after R1 is well defined, so the writers were restricted on both sides. A prequel can fill in an unlimited amount of backstory while a sequel can always invent something new. Rogue One had to work inside of a confined section of time, and did it brilliantly.
Finally, the characters. Oh, god the characters. I guess after 4 episodes with (in my opinion) very poor character design, Rogue One only had to be halfway decent for me to love it. But they managed to go beyond that. The original trilogy had five of what I'd call "Main Characters" and did a great job of showing their growth and development over three films. The prequels had just three (and some minor ones that nearly cross the line) and were awash with unrealistic motivations and no not much in the way of worthwhile development. Rogue One had six and managed to give every one a distinct personality and set of consistent motivations. More than that, actual growth. From Cassian's heartless beginning to eventual redemption to Jyn's determination and acceptance of the Rebellion as a cause worth dying for, the writers did an amazing job of making relatable and interesting cameos. The cameos were well done, but didn't distract from the main show, and the use of CGI for Tarkin and Leia was superb. Not perfect, but there wasn't enough screen time for the bit of Uncanny Valley to be a problem. Oh, as can I take a second to talk about K-2SO. Because I want to say how truly amazing he was as a character. That's how comic relief should be done. Not with poop and fart jokes. And the writers never took that humor an inch too far. When push came to shove, K-2SO did an amazing job walking the line between humor and competence.
And no list of characters is complete without a villain. The original trilogy knew this. The prequels screwed up and had a single one for each episode, making them flat and boring (Yes, Darth Sidious was there, but not as a person the characters interacted with). Episode VII looks like its trying to imitate the originals, but has Darth Emo leading the Legions of Evil for Evil's Sake. A good villain has a motivation beyond destroying the world. The Empire in the original trilogy wanted order. A fascist order, but still order. And after the Clone Wars and the Jedi "Treason" the public and military could conceivably be behind that sort of thing. The New Order of VII decided to throw that out the window and create an army built around random acts of evil. A villain's army can't think of themselves as evil. It just doesn't make sense. But the New Order had too many people being too unrealistically evil for me to really respect them as a legitimate enemy. But enough Force Awakens bashing. The original Empire is back, and just as good. Vader also makes a return in a major supporting role, and plays it beautifully. Finally, there's Krennic, the main bad guy for the whole endeavor. I personally liked him, and I'm going to borrow a quote from Brad Torgensen's review that I wholeheartedly agree with: "[Krennic] was actually composed, and sympathetic. Not because he’s not bad—he is. But because you can see how the pressure cooker at the top of the Imperial pecking order breeds, and then grinds down and uses up, capable men. I didn’t root for him, but I didn’t actively root against him either. He was . . . necessary."
None of this praise is to say the movie is perfect. I thought the romance at the end between Cassian and Jyn was unnecessary and shoehorned in. The aforementioned Grand Surrender Party was silly, and the Empire's final destruction of Scarif seemed pointless. I think a capture and execution or Cassian and Jyn jumping from the tower to avoid capture by a squad of stormtroopers would have made more sense, not Tarkin firing on the base (with very poor accuracy compared to Jedha) when the Rebels were nearly all dead. But that's small beans compared to an otherwise excellent movie, and gets an 8.5/10 in my book. That puts it tied for second in my overall movie lineup. For those keeping score at home, that would be:
1) Empire Strikes Back (9/10)
2) A New Hope (8.5/10)
2) Rogue One (8.5/10)
4) Return of the Jedi (7.5/10)
5) The Force Awakens (6/10)
6) Revenge of the Sith (5.5/10)
7) Attack of the Clones (4.5/10)
8) Phantom Menace (3/10)