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Rogue One represents a challenge for the ever-expanding Star Wars universe. It is the first big-screen entry that is not explicitly about the Skywalker family, so its failure could interrupt Disney’s plan for an annual Star Wars movie until well beyond our lifetimes. The best thing about Rogue One is that director Gareth Edwards and his team see the challenge as an opportunity. By focusing on a new-ish set of characters and goals, we are able to see the intergalactic civil war with more grit, danger, and heroism than we have from the previous seven episodes. Rogue One is not perfect, but it represents an exciting growth – in cinematic and narrative terms – of what a Star Wars film can be.

The striking first image announces how Rogue One is a departure from The Force Awakens. Instead of a stately opening crawl, set to John Williams’ immortal music, there is a crash of orchestral music and an abrupt shot of a new planet. Led by Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a ship visits a remote farm where Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) lives with his wife and daughter. Krennic wants Galen to return to the Imperial fleet, and finish building a new weapon that will crush the Rebellion once and for all. Galen obliges, but not before helping his daughter escape.

This timeline is somewhere between The Revenge of a Sith and A New Hope, a period that Obi-Wan calls “The Dark Times.” Indeed, there is a sense of filthy gloom over all new planets we visit (the production team suggest Imperial power has led to widespread rust and disrepair). Fifteen years after Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) escapes, the Rebellion recruits her for a dangerous mission: she must sneak into an Imperial stronghold, and steal the plans to the Death Star – plans her father finally finished. The rebellion looks haggard, speaking in hushed tones and prone to desperate tactics. Jyn gets help from Cassian (Diego Luna), a rebel spy, as well as the repurposed droid K2-SO (Alan Tudyk). When we first meet Cassian, he’s downright ruthless because glory is the farthest thing from his mind.

Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy spend the first two acts of Rogue One on the tenuous alliance between Jyn, Cassian, and their newfound allies. They meet Chirrut and Baze (Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang), a monk and assassin who feel the gnawing unease the Force without meaning. Riz Ahmet plays Bodhi, a defector Imperial pilot who has the key to Galen’s subterfuge. Together these characters stumble through two big set-pieces: the first involves the Rebellion fighting with/against Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker), a warrior zealot whose guerrilla tactics are too extreme for even the Rebels. The second involves an attempt to rescue Galen. These sequences are perfunctory, even aimless, since they are about more emotion than action; everyone plays their hand close to the chest. Character reversals and newfound trust are their purpose, so the chaos of explosions and laser fire has little coherence. 

For all its dragging, including a ponderous attack on a dark rainy planet, Rogue One builds to arguably the best action sequence of any Star Wars film. The last forty minutes are an epic, sustained battle on land and in space. There are dogfights, including Star Destroyers knocking out smaller rebel planes, and more intimate struggles (e.g. the ubiquitous need to open one locked door after another). Edwards mixed macro and micro-scale action in Godzilla, his last film, and here he manages to juggle several balls in the air – while also on a unicycle, playing the harmonica. The sheer scale and enormity of the climax is awesome, almost overwhelming, and that sense of the greater good feeds into a richer feeling of righteous defiance. By the time we share the heroes’ unspoken sense of purpose, there is a new kind of suspense over what may happen next – at least for a Star Wars movie.

In addition to action that values sacrifice over heroism, Rogue One includes plenty of fan service. There are callbacks to A New Hope, as well as the prequels, that are mostly defined by familiar faces. Darth Vader is back, and Edwards shoots him in a way that makes him more monstrous and cruel than ever before. These callbacks are fun in fan service terms, but they also provide a sense of continuity for a war that’s lasted generations. These procedural details are interesting, including some sinister intra-Imperial betrayals, yet the required special effects for them are a touch too uncanny. The leads in Rogue One look like they could use a shower and a hot meal – all their acting is understated, relying more on realism than charisma – so the relatively familiar, polished characters are all the more jarring.

After seeing Rogue One, the initial temptation is to canonize it. What’s the point of Star Wars, if not to argue and rank the films against each other? Rogue One is different enough, in both scope and purpose, so that such comparisons are meaningless. Unlike The Force Awakens, this is its own thing – a choice that has strengths and drawbacks. If the prequels and Jar Jar Binks are fodder for younger Star Wars fans, then Rogue One is for the more jaded, experienced fans who lived a little harder, and gotten used to disappointment. Having captured the imagination of millions, here is a Star Wars film that recognizes that most of us are not so innocent, and the rest of us will get there soon enough.