Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feels like the highest budget fan film you’ve ever seen. You might think that sounds like an insult, but I mean it as the highest of compliments. It’s the spirit of Star Wars channelled through the lens of a World War 2 film.
Rogue One takes place before A New Hope, referencing events mentioned in the opening crawl of the first film. A squad of rebels are tasked with swiping the plans for the Death Star to help the Rebel Alliance destroy the Empire’s most deadly weapon. The story fills in some of the gaps from the established Star Wars universe. We meet the man who created the Death Star, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and see the discovery of its weak point and how this knowledge got into the hands of the good guys.
To the film’s immense credit however, it is never overshadowed by the larger events that it is effectively a bridge between. There are moments of fan service, of course, but most of these feel earned rather than shoehorned in. Darth Vader’s appearance was confirmed in the trailers, so it’s not a spoiler to mention his presence in Rogue One, but he’s used sparingly, as are the other connecting strands to the wider universe.
We follow Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), estranged daughter of Galen as she finds herself reluctantly brought into battle with the rebels. Her introduction is interesting, as it sets her up as someone who has reason to bear a grudge against the Empire, but when we meet her, she’s not at all interested in the battle that has been forced upon her, until it becomes clear that it could lead her back to her father.
She’s a well-drawn character, battle hardened and stand-offish in a way that has echoes of Rey from The Force Awakens, and she has a very similar back story to boot. Jyn is a little more interesting because the entire mystique of her character isn’t shrouded in who her parents might be and whether she’s a Jedi or not. From the start, we know who she Jyn is, and director Gareth Edwards does a stellar job of making you care where she goes from there. The rest of the characters are suitably strong too, if at times entirely one note. A highlight is Ben Mendelson as Orson Krennic, having the time of his life chewing the scenery as an all-around horrible chap and Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military. Imagine having that on your LinkedIn profile.
Rogue One has everything you would expect from a Star Wars film, but the move away from the Jedi-centric plots of the main story gives room for much more bombastic action. It has the series’ best aerial dogfights and blaster battle sequences. While we get a few echoes of lightsaber swinging action in the form of Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a force sensitive warrior, most of the combat thankfully stays clear of Jedi tropes.
While the war film inspirations are instantly evocative, Rogue One has plenty of the more cheesy aspects of Star Wars in it as well. We see a strange range of alien races, some quirky market and back alley scenes, and a plethora of different languages on display. What makes it all gel so well is that it never feels like it’s shoehorned in. While the opening and ending crawls feel tacked on, the rest of the Star Wars flavour notes in Rogue One’s heady space soup feel like they belong exactly where they are. We’ve also got a new quirky robot buddy joining the team, in the form of K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) who easily overshadows the ‘bots we’ve seen before. K-2SO oozes personality, delivers some of the best comedy moments of the film, and the edge to his personality is also evocative of the film’s slightly darker tones.
In many ways, tone is what sets Rogue One apart from the main series. It’s clear from the start that Gareth Edwards knows what the film needs to be, giving fans a taste of what they want, but pulling away from the influences of the main series to give us something different, and wholly entertaining. Rogue One might initially seem completely predictable; after all, we already know how it ends. However, as the film enters its explosive third act, it’s clear that Rogue One has much more in common with a rousing war movie than the main Star Wars series, and that’s what makes it truly unique. Jason Purdy