From contributing film critic Andrew Gaudion

The path to Rogue One, the first in several planned stand-alone Star Wars movies, has not been as smooth as perhaps Lucasfilm had hoped for. It is another Hollywood movie plagued by rumours of unease in the edit room, leading to extensive reshoots, and even the rumour that someone other than the director (Godzilla’s Gareth Edwards) was calling the shots in the edit suite. It was looking like, at least for a little while, that this may not be the Star Wars prequel that the fans have been hoping for ever since the disappointments that were presented to us from 1999 to 2005. Yet, it seems what work was done in reshoots must have only been for the betterment of the film (as Hollywood execs so often tell us, but we’re never willing to believe) since Rogue One stands as not only the strongest prequel, but also the best Star Wars movie since the 80s.

The Intergalactic Empire is tightening its grip on the galaxy, with work nearly complete on a new super weapon known as the Death Star, a space station capable of destroying a planet (but you probably knew that). Keen to find a way to destroy it, the Rebel Alliance seeks out Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father (Mads Mikkelsen) is an Imperial scientist involved in the development of the Death Star. When locations for the plans of the Death Star are determined, it soon falls to Jyn and a small band of rebel fighters to risk their lives to stand a chance of destroying a weapon of devastating power.

There is a throwaway line in A New Hope concerning a band of rebel soldiers who gave their lives to obtain the plans to the Death Star, so no second guesses how this stand-alone story ends. Therein lies the first challenge for Rogue One – how do you make this story interesting when your audience knows how it will ultimately end? The answer has been to make it a genre picture, to truly put the ‘War’ in Star Wars and display some of the darker shades of a galaxy far, far away. It allows Rogue One to truly stand apart from the Skywalker saga and be something much more contained, visceral, and all-in-all somewhat more interesting.

Free from the shackles of the over-arching story threads, these stand-alone films should find fertile ground for telling intriguing stories in different and exciting ways, and Rogue One demonstrates a great deal of promise. With a gritty, grainy aesthetic, Edwards has simply shot the best-looking Star Wars film yet (courtesy of Zero dark Thirty cinematographer Greig Fraser), enabling the film to feel visually distinct despite still remaining very true to the pre-established Star Wars aesthetic. Much of the costume and set designs hark back to ’77, allowing the film to feel part of the universe while still operating within its own sub-genre as an often down-and-dirty war flick.

The crafting of the plot also enables it to be pulse-pounding and exciting, despite our knowledge of the outcome. The proceedings take a little while to get moving, as the pieces are moved across the board and characters seek out elements to move the plot along, but it all proves to be in the name of allowing the final third to fiercely drive into high gear. We witness a final act in the classical Star Wars mould with various types of battles occurring all at once as our heroes fend off villains and seek to achieve their objectives. It all flows incredibly well and leads to many moments of nail-biting tension and hugely satisfying pay-offs, as well as maintaining a sense of self-containment, allowing for the proceedings to feel far more fulfilling than most of the current crop of endlessly open-ended blockbusters.

The film does lack when it comes to characters. Jyn Erso is not a particularly well-rounded character, her motivations often only driven by what the story needs her to do. The same can be said for Diego Luna’s Cassian, who does initially seem to offer an interesting moral ambiguity when it comes to the decisions of the Rebel Alliance, but ultimately ends up also being a plot servicing character. Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid is the character with the most personality, his droll humour adding a great deal of levity, as well as some sharp dark wit. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen also prove memorable, if only because time is given to establish a rapport between the two of them. The cast is all perfectly capable, it is just their characters are unlikely to enter the realms of iconography as so many previous Star Wars characters have.

This is very much a Star Wars movie made for the older generation of fans, what with its more downbeat tone and touchpoints to the original movies. Some moments feel like box-ticking fan service, while others are simply joyous to behold (one scene involving Vader in the final third so very nearly makes you forgive everything that was done with the character in the prequel trilogy). It also proves to be a more satisfying experience than The Force Awakens. Without having to set up future instalments (they’ve already been made), Rogue One is freer to have its own stakes, and make them truly count with moments of brilliant action and a welcome change of visual approach. The force is most certainly strong with this one.

(Photos copyright: Lucasfilm, Allison Shearmur Productions, Black Hangar Studios, Stereo D, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures )

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