Spoilers, of course.
The purpose of Rogue One was simple: To show that the Star Wars universe is bigger than the Skywalker clan, bigger than the Jedi. The Empire remains as cookie-cutter Nazi analogue as ever, but the Rebels are not the yin to their yang – they are disunited, squabbling, as messy as democracy should be. If there’s any oblique reference to our politics in the movie, it is only in the contentious Council meeting and nowhere else.
This was a great Star Wars movie. It was great because it stopped trying so hard to be a Star Wars movie. The Death Star was shown, with mere single-cell firing, to be the weapon of true terror and mass destruction that was never really communicated by the destruction of Alderaan in ANH or a few cruisers in RotJ. The destruction rained upoin Jedha was all the more epic because it was limited, and happened on a scale that was merely enormous, still relatable to the human mind, as we saw a literal wave of rock spread outwards in slow motion and glowing ejecta thrown upwards. The Death Star was every bit a character as Vader, and every bit as menacing, for the first time, really.
I have heard the complaints but I don’t share any of them. Tarkin CGI? Brilliant, and completely fooled me. In my opinion, we are well past the Uncanny Valley here, though the Leia at the end was slightly unconvincing (but no worse than the youthful Tony Stark in Winter Soldier). Too many characters? This was an ensemble movie. It’s ok to have a shallower treatment. All the better to throw the characters we do know from the main trilogy, particularly Vader, into sharper relief.
But the strangest critique, that it is missing something ineffable that makes Star Wars, Star Wars, I just flatly disagree. Star Wars isn’t a film grain or a opening crawl or a bunch of wacky dissolves. It’s a living, breathing universe. There’s real depth here that can sustain a narrative – the Extended (now Legacy) Universe was proof of that. I came out of the movie with a huge grin, not least because we finally saw Vader kicking the kind of ass we all knew he could, but also because of so many other things: Stormtroopers complaining about the T-15s, paging General Syndulla, Red and Gold Leaders, Jimmy Smits reprising his role as Bail Organa with entirely natural aging. These are the details that matter, that show a love for the Star Wars universe, not just the sexy bits like lightsabers but all the little details that fill in the gaps. These are the things that make Star Wars, and there was plenty of room for new things, too, like U-wings and the sardonic humor of reprogrammed Imperial droids.
This was the Star Wars movie we were looking for.
UPDATE: There’s some question as to why the captain of the Tantive IV tried to pretend “this is a diplomatic ship on a consular mission” when Vader caught up. However, its possible that the ship that escaped from Scarif was not the Tantive IV, and rendezvoused with it instead. Leia and the droids were likely aboard the Tantive IV actually going on a diplomatic mission (as cover, anyway). Since we know that the ship escaping from Scarif went to hyperspace right away, it’s unlikely that they could have been directly followed, but I suspect that Vader tracked Leia (and all other known Senate sympathizers of the Rebellion).