From the time the first teaser for The Force Awakens dropped two years ago, the Star Wars franchise has enjoyed a new cultural revival. In a year marked by the dying gasps of rebooted franchises that should have enjoyed peaceful deaths years ago (looking at you, Independence Day), Star Wars proved it had the staying power to reinvent itself. It rose to unprecedented heights in sales, booted George Lucas entirely from the franchise, and finally made fans everywhere shut up about the prequels.
Like any franchise at the height of its popularity, Disney has realized the untapped market for Star Wars spinoffs and standalone movies (though probably not Christmas specials). While the world waits to see if Star Wars will stick the landing with Episode VIII next December, and with a Han Solo prequel set to come out in 2018, director Gareth Edwards takes the lead with Rogue One, a gritty, get-your-hands-dirty take on the days of the rebellion before Luke and Leia.
When we were first introduced to our heroes in A New Hope, they were fleeing from the forces of the sinister Darth Vader, carrying stolen information detailing plans for the Death Star, a superweapon capable of destroying entire planets. Chronologically, Rogue
One picks up immediately prior to A New Hope, and tells the story of the misfits, mercenaries, assassins, and thieves who came together to steal that information. The storyline is a rather drastic departure from the usual Star Wars plotlines and much darker; their mission is all but outright stated to be suicide, the heroes are much grimmer and more flawed, and it quickly becomes obvious that none of them are going to make it to the later movies.
The story follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose estranged father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been pressganged into designing the empire’s death machines. Unbeknownst to Jyn, her father has reached out to her and the rebellion one last time, in the hope of sabotaging the galaxy’s most fearsome weapon before it can be used. Teaming up with a dashing rebel spy (Diego Luna), a blind priest of the Force and his mercenary friend (Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang), an anxiety-ridden defector (Riz Ahmed), and a robot who greatly resembles C-3PO with more sarcasm and fewer manners (Alan Tudyk), Jyn leads a last-ditch gamble to steal the plans right out from under Darth Vader’s asthmatic metal nose.
Be warned going into this movie- there are a lot of running plot lines, and you are immediately expected to know how the universe works. The beginning of the movie scrambles to introduce each character between the long, gorgeous landscape shots that have come to define the franchise. The cinematography alone is downright breathtaking - expect awe-inspiring shots of imperial walkers emerging from smoke, epic planetary CGI set pieces, and a late-game appearance by Vader himself which could arguably be called his most effective and terrifying scene in the entire canon. The soundtrack is likewise sweeping and impressive; composer Michael Giacchino had to fill some truly enormous shoes to stand alongside the likes of the legendary John Williams.
As a movie, Rogue One’s biggest strength, and weakness, is how beautifully and seamlessly it fits into the Star Wars canon. It’s not merely the cameos themselves- everyone from C-3PO and R2-D2 to “the guy whose arm Obi-Wan cut off in a bar that one time” makes an appearance. For fans of the other movies, it provides a nice bit of depth for the universe - seeing the stormtroopers in their weathered white armor, their starcraft hovering over far-off planets, and the messy early days of the rebellion makes the Star Wars universe seem gritty, lived-in, and real. Rogue One also explains a number of details from the other movies, such as that ancient question of how exactly one bomb brought down the entire Death Star in the first movie.
But where a movie in a franchise like Avengers might be content with cheeky cameos and inside jokes for the dedicated comics fans, the plot of Rogue One dovetails entirely with the plot of A New Hope. If you were not familiar with stormtroopers or Jedi beforehand, good luck figuring it out. The creators were obviously banking on the fact that the Star Wars story is considered general knowledge, to the extent the Rogue One struggles as a standalone movie.
For fans of the Star Wars ‘verse and its convoluted lore, it ought to be received as a welcome addition to the canon. If not... well, you might want to keep the original trilogy on hand just in case.