The buzz has been all over the place for Rogue One: A Star Wars story.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Rating: ****
The first in a planned series of anthology films set out-with the timeline of the new sequel trilogy, it has been plagued with rumours of production problems for months but has also inspired fervent fan love for trailer reveals like the presence of Darth Vader and the top-bill casting of Felicity Jones as the film’s main character, Jyn Erso (a name that in the grand tradition of Star Wars quickly goes from sounding corny to cool the more you hear it).
What’s immediately clear from the opening scenes – it’s still “A long time ago” but there’s no fanfare or iconic story scrawl – is that any negativity is unwarranted: this is not some embarrassing cash-in or sterile act of CGI world-building; it’s a confident, gutsy, earthy action movie, one that puts the “war” into Star Wars by filtering the classic iconography through the prism of a modern combat movie, much like director Gareth Edwards did with his excellent indie sci-fi drama Monsters and his respectable Godzilla remake.
He puts his own stamp on it, in other words, which is no mean feat given he simultaneously has to be more reverential than JJ Abrams was with The Force Awakens thanks to a plot that zeroes in on the mission to steal the plans to the Death Star that eventually end up stored in R2-D2.
This does require Rogue One to invoke some ingenious solves to tie everything up to Star Wars, but Edwards makes you care about the story at hand, first so that knowledge of the wider saga mostly serves as added texture.
It helps that Jones is allowed to dominate the film. Her character has a rich back story, elegantly sketched out in an opening prologue that sets up a complex relationship with her estranged father (played by Mads Mikkelsen), whose role in the creation of the Death Star isn’t as simple as it seems. Which isn’t to say there no levity in the movie, though.
A reprogrammed imperial droid called K2-SO (he’s played by sci-fi regular Alan Tudyk) has an amusingly droll directness in his assessment of any situation, but mercifully this doesn’t feel like a movie designed to sell more toys. On the contrary, it’s perhaps the darkest Star Wars film yet, more concerned with showing the devastation caused by the Death Star than celebrating the spectacle of blockbuster destruction.
And yet it’s also one of the most exhilarating in the series, a film with a real sense of how to tell a story – and tell it well.