The reassuring presence of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in 2015’s The Force Awakens went a long way towards appeasing those Star Wars fans underwhelmed by creator George Lucas’s trio of prequels to the original film. Yet, while Lucas was largely hands-off (Han’s off?) during the making of Rogue One, he must have been hoping this slightly more radical spin-off would get a warmer reception than his own efforts.
An entirely new roster of frontline characters, played by actors yet to attain household-name status, was always going to be gamble, and calling the movie a “standalone” chapter in the saga might have been a vague attempt at lowering expectations. The description proves to be misleading, however, because while director Gareth Edwards gleefully sticks several fresh pins in the galactic map, we’re not in completely unfamiliar territory.
There are motifs aplenty that allude to previous entries, none of which will be highlighted here – far be it for us to spoil the fun of finding them yourselves – but perhaps a little guidance wouldn’t go amiss.
If The Force Awakens was the last hurrah for Princess Leia and Han Solo, then Rogue One serves as a prologue to their story. In the potentially confusing timelines of the series’ release dates and the films’ specific places in the chronology, what we have here is a tight and economical bridge between 2005’s Revenge of the Sith and the 1977 juggernaut that started the whole business. Episode III Part II, if you will.
It’s the first time in cinema history that two hours have been spent setting up the iconic on-screen scroll of a film made 40 years earlier, but the plot could hardly be simpler, and is all the better for it. Felicity Jones leads the line as Jyn Erso, the trouble-magnet daughter of the genius scientist responsible for vital components in the construction of the Death Star (first referred to here as the “planet killer” by a minor character not long for this or any other world).
All too aware of the devastation and destruction her father’s work could wreak on the galaxy, Jyn tries to convince the rebel alliance of the need to steal daddy’s blueprints from the evil empire and exploit the weaknesses Erso Senior sneakily built in to the design. The alliance is reluctant to mount an assault, but Jyn finds a hardy band of like-minded souls (rebel rebels?) to join her mission.
Chief among this misfit squad is Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a near matinee-idol adventurer who, like Han Solo before him – or is it after? – has a non-human riding shotgun. Enter the droid K-2S0, voiced by Alan Tudyk (Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen), destined to become one of the franchise’s most beloved characters; sardonic, side-achingly funny, and with the same poor social skills and lack of filter as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. Just wait, the TV show’s writers will mine that particular seam of comedy before too long.
Storyline taken care off, the action set pieces are given room to breathe, rattling along with seat-gripping excitement in spades. The CGI may be pristine, but there’s a palpable grit to the visual palette, a return to the “used universe” of the early films – more tarnish than varnish.
Jyn is arguably the only character with a substantive back story, and Jones plays the dusty, dishevelled heroine with understated feistiness.
Taking into account the franchise’s paymasters since The Force Awakens, she might just be Disney’s first genuinely feminist princess.
As expected, the internet went into overdrive long before release date. Five weeks of reshoots fuelled rumours that Edwards no longer had full artistic control, and within hours of the Hollywood premiere forums were buzzing with claims that as much as half of the footage seen in trailers was absent from the finished film.
Whatever the hiccups and hurdles along the way, the end result is an almighty triumph, the best-constructed and most fun Star Wars flick since The Empire Strikes Back. The force is truly strong with this one.
Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is in cinemas on Thursday 15 December