Discounting a pair of frankly horrific, cheapo Ewok-based made for TV films for which the word “naff” was surely invented, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story marks the first proper stand alone spin-off tale on the big screen from the ever-expansive Star Wars universe. Coming 12 months after J.J. Abrams revitalised the franchise with the unashamedly fun The Force Awakens, British director and self-confessed Star Wars nerd (one of us, one of us) Gareth Edwards delivers this dark prequel to the 1977 original episode in the sprawling saga.
Eschewing the traditional opening crawl (no guff about trade disputes here) Rogue One instead starts with a jaw-droppingly gorgeous shot of an Imperial shuttle travelling across the rings of a planet on its way to a showdown with Mads Mikkelsen’s in-hiding Galen Erso, a former science officer with the Empire. Pursued for some time by boo-hiss Imperial advanced weapons head, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Erso and his family are discovered on the misty planet of Lah’mu. With Erso the only man to complete construction on the Empire’s secret super weapon, the Death Star, he has little choice but to go along with Krennic with the safety of his young daughter Jyn at stake.
Fast forward 15 years and Jyn has grown into Oscar nominee Felicity Jones. Tough and capable after a decade being brought up by grizzled Rebel zealot Saw Gerrara (a slightly overly oddball turn by Forest Whitaker) she is liberated from a prison transport by Rebel Alliance captain Cassian Andor (the cool-as-eff Diego Luna) and his droid co-pilot K-2SO (Alan Tudyk playing it sassy and snarky) when rumours of the Empire’s ultimate weapon come to light thanks to Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a pilot claiming to have been sent with a message for Saw Gerrara from Galen Erso. Agreeing to help the Rebels find her father, Jyn teams up with Cassian and K-2SO, recruiting Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) along the way in an effort to discover the secrets of the Death Star before it’s too late for the Rebellion.
We’ve seen battles galore before in the Star Wars universe but here with Rogue One, director Gareth Edwards delivers a true war film, a disparate band of oddballs coming together to complete their mission against insurmountable odds. In short, it’s kind of brutal. Edwards doesn’t shirk from showing us the devastating effects of war, when the Death Star unleashes its awesome power; levelling an entire city, it’s seen in spectacular close-up, hammering home for the first time just how much of a loss the annihilation of Alderan is in Episode IV. Make no mistake, this is Star Wars but not as we know it; it’s with a darkness and desperation at its heart.
Forget the “who shot first?” argument from A New Hope (it was Han, we all know it), there is no escaping such moral dilemmas’ in Rogue One with Luna’s captain having to take out allies for the good of the cause. The rules of the Force are further expanded in the form of the Force-sensitive guardian of the Jedi temple Chirrut. Blind and totally badass, Yen gets some great scenes here and will sure to be a fan favourite. In fact, the entire ragtag bunch of heroes - Jones’ intense Jyn, Luna’s secretive intelligence officer, Tudyk’s cynical wisecracking droid, Ahmed’s underused but likeable former Imperial pilot, Yen’s optimistic arse-kicker and Jiang’s no nonsense loyal guardian - are sure to live long in the memory as classic Star Wars characters. Mikkelsen adds pathos as the protective father caught between a Death Star and a hard place. To this it would be remiss not to mention Mendelsohn’s slimy Krennic, a sneering snake of a man, aware that his Death Star project could be his undoing with another high-ranking Imperial officer ready to take the credit should he slip up.
But what of Darth Vader you may ask? Undoubtedly some quarters may have been expecting more screen time from cinemas ultimate bad guy but his time in Rogue One is well spent: a tetchy exchange with Krennic and a scene at the close of the film that segues flawlessly and brilliantly into A New Hope is a series highlight. Make no mistake, Vader is a beast, albeit one that amusingly sashays like a supermodel in his meeting with Krennic.
Director Edwards once again creates some gorgeous frames, all the more stunning in IMAX. Hugging the giant IMAX screen this is truly the most visually beautiful Star Wars to date and comes highly recommended in the format. The Brit is no stranger to big set-pieces and he delivers in spades here, ramping up the tension and making us care deeply for the fate of our heroes. Yes we know the plans will eventually end up in Princess Leia’s capable hands but that doesn’t detract from the tense race against time to get to that point.
As wonderful as it looks and ties together Rogue One isn’t without its issues, namely some Jeff Bridges Tron Legacy style CGI that jars with the otherwise flawless effects work and Star Trek composer Michael Giacchino’s score sometimes underwhelms.
Still, it’s an extremely satisfying and brave addition to the franchise, and Rogue One feels like Star Wars whilst very definitely being its own beast. Gareth Edwards gives us a thrilling and unexpectedly poignant and moving experience. Over to you Han Solo, we can’t wait to meet you.