"I find that answer vague and unconvincing."
The ultimate no-win situation, as a creative person, has to be working on a Star Wars movie. No matter its faults, perceived or real, putting your name on a Star Wars film is a guaranteed way to divide people's opinion of you as a filmmaker. Gareth Edwards had the unenviable task of being the first guy to direct a Star Wars movie that wasn't focused firmly on the Skywalker family, and his Rogue One is what I would consider to be—in the year 2016—the best case scenario for such a film.
We live in the age of forced nostalgia, and virtually everything that we see, hear, read, or consume in any other way is controlled by one of a handful of corporate overlords. The age of the big-budget independent film—the atmosphere that bred the very first Star Wars film—is long since dead, and those who take out their anger over that essential fact on this film in particular are missing the forest for the trees. We are living in a time where commerce dictates that we'll get a new Star Wars film every year until most of us are dead, so anyone crying foul over "fan service" or "misguided attempts to appeal to a general audience" needs to get their priorities in line.
Set in the days before the very first Star Wars film—or A New Hope as it has come to be known over time—Rogue One takes its entire plot from these two lines in the 1977 film's opening crawl.
Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
The fledgling Rebellion finds itself short on hope as the Empire completes work on the Death Star, a project being overseen by the beleaguered Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). The Rebels hit the jackpot, however, when they manage to bring Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) to their station of Yavin IV. Her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced by the Empire to work on the weapons system for the Death Star and the Rebels want her help in tracking him down.
Put in the stead of Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial death droid K2SO (Alan Tudyk), Jyn's mission is to first track down Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Gerrera is an insurgent battling the Empire with very violent and deadly tactics that the Rebellion won't condone, but he has recently received a transmission from Galen Erso, brought to him by an Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who has defected from the Empire on Galen's advice. Jyn, Cassian, and Bodhi soon form a team with two "Guardians of the Whills" named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) to track down Jyn's father and steal the plans to the Death Star.
The only legitimate criticism that I could level at Rogue One is that it lacked a substantial amount of character development, but it's a credit to the ensemble that they didn't let this overtly affect the film. I liked that the heroes were all, morally at least, several shades of grey. In a world where "only Siths deal in absolutes," we got a group of heroes with morally dubious pasts and a main villain who managed to imbue his character with enough empathy as to make him more than an irredeemable cliché. Even still, they manage to give us just enough about the characters to give a damn about them and their plight.
There are a lot of callbacks and nods to other characters, lines, and incidents from Star Wars lore, and while a handful of them are distracting, they all come from a place of genuine love and care for the history of this franchise. There isn't any cynicism to be found in these moments that are being derided as "fan service," and they actually help to place these characters and incidents in the proper context of the larger saga. The ones that don't work are the ones that aren't crucial to the plot but are rather just tossed in for seemingly no reason, i.e. a cameo from the two most famous droids in all of Star Wars, and that sort of thing is impossible to defend, but I don't find any of them as egregious or officious as some of the things that Star Wars prequels apologists must defend in order to justify their existence.
For better or worse—depending upon your opinion—we're never going to get a Star Wars movie that is anything other than a product of what's come before it. Every man or woman who writes or directs one of these films is a man or woman who grew up on these films, and that is going to shade their interpretation of this galaxy. There is no way around this, it is the absolute truth that we all must accept if we're ever going to be allowed to enjoy anything ever again. Did this film need Darth Vader or cgi-Grand Moff Tarkin or the "You'll be dead!" guy? No, of course not, but that's not a reason to hate the movie, that's a reason to hate the culture that bred a business model in which culturally bankrupt executives think that that sort of thing is the only way to sell tickets.
Rogue One is a rip-roaring adventure set in the Star Wars universe that works quite nicely as a standalone effort, but will be better served at home when it can be watched immediately prior to A New Hope. This is a film full of love and respect for the world of Star Wars and it wears that affection on its sleeve. To take such a cynical stance against this film says more about the absurd lengths those detractors will go to than it does about the quality of the film itself. It essentially leaves me, as both a critic and a fan, wondering whether the film would have been better or worse had George Lucas been involved. And if anyone out there thinks that he was above the sort of callbacks that annoy some fans about this film or The Force Awakens should watch the "Special Editions" sometime and tell me why Jabba the Hutt shows up to have the exact same conversation with Han Solo that he just had with Greedo. Go ahead, I'll be right here waiting.