Now that Disney has been marshalling resources as if they're the Empire, they plan to pump out new Star Wars movies at a one-per-year pace, including the upcoming young Han Solo origin tale. But despite the global dominance of the franchise, it's always been carried on the back of George Lucas's original trilogy and the extended story it now encompasses, including last year's seventh instalment, The Force Awakens.
There's actually a fair amount of pressure to get Rogue One: A Star Wars Story right. There's never been a major non-Skywalker-family Star Wars film, much less one with a female lead (Felicity Jones) and almost no other familiar characters. Never has the universe looked as diverse on the human side as it does with respect to aliens — Rogue One is a far cry from Lando Calrissian seeming like the loneliest person in Lucas's universe.
Rogue One's biggest advantage owes its debt to Lucas too: as the original Star Wars opened, it saw Darth Vader boarding a rebel ship seeking stolen plans to the Empire's planet-busting weapon the Death Star. We entered a world in progress: a totalitarian regime in place, a rebellion underway, we were meeting people whose lives were already in deep peril.
Rogue One, quite simply, is the story of how those plans to the Death Star were acquired. We meet Jyn Erso (Jones) as a young girl who witnesses her brilliant scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) being forced into working for the Empire on its advanced weapons system. Their separation throws her life into turmoil; she's raised by rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), forever pitting her against the Empire and her father. When her life on the run lands her, as a young woman, in an Imperial prison, she encounters other members of the Rebel Alliance who seek to bring down the Empire and want to use her familial connection to help make it happen.
Rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) assembles the de rigeur band of misfits — blind Jedi Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), fighter Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and a downed Imperial pilot converted to the cause, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Together they embark upon the invasion of Imperial bases in order to secure the crucial Death Star plans.
Director Gareth Edwards, who was responsible for the only good Hollywood Godzilla movie in recent memory, brings the grit and dust of a war epic to the proceedings. Ground battles early in Rogue One more closely resemble Zero Dark Thirty than Lucas's antiseptic prequels.
Despite the overall story arc being known, this is also narratively the most surprising recent Star Wars film. While The Force Awakens essentially retold the tale of A New Hope — find the plans to the (new) Death Star, find its weakness, destroy it — Jyn's journey dealing with her father's legacy and coming to terms with the sacrifice required to fight true evil is fresh and contemporarily resonant.
Edwards is smart to evoke some familiar elements here, without overdoing the "Oh look, it's Ponda Baba" moments, but there are a couple of surprising cameos, including one unexpected appearance that prompted a loud gasp from the audience.
In tone and content, Rogue One joins The Empire Strikes Back as both the darkest and the very best of the Star Wars films; it tackles the sacrifice of resistance in ways that are both brutal and appropriate. More even than The Force Awakens — which proved that the legacy of the original trilogy could be honoured — Rogue One is the launching pad to a whole new, familiar universe. (Disney)