We're starting to like this 'new Star Wars every year' thing - after The Force Awakens rebooted the main saga for a new generation in a massively successful way, these new spin-offs give Lucasfilm a chance to experiment within the confines of what is an almost limitless universe. We weren't sure what to expect when the spin-offs were first announced - would they follow the untold adventures of Sy Snootles? Delve into the Gamorrean Guard Academy? Or maybe have the coming of age tale of a Sandperson who ends up being cut down in his prime by an angry Padawan?
Gareth Edwards first stab sticks to pretty safe ground, telling a story that we already kind of know but have never seen. Set in the moments before 1977's Star Wars, we get to find out who stole and how they stole the plans for the Empire's new super weapon - it's a great idea and means Edwards is able to craft the most Star Warsy Star Wars film without actually just remaking Episode IV. We get the original Death Star, X-Wings, Tie Fighters, Classic Stormtroopers, Mon Mothma, DARTH VADER - it's a veritable checklist of iconic imagery and characters along with a load of amazing surprises that we never saw coming. Despite this there's no baggage - it's a fresh story that can be watched entirely independent of the main saga; and the fact that something SO intertwined can be so independent speaks volumes for how deftly Rogue One has been put together.
We discover early on that Galen Erso has been helping the Empire with new tech that he wants them to use to bring peace to the galaxy, they clearly have other ideas and when they tap him up to return to help them finish what he started it's clear that's not too pleased to be leaving his wife and young daughter, Jyn. Skip forward a few years to find Jyn has been in and out of trouble for much of her life. Teaming up with a band of rebels she is tasked with finding a flaw that the Rebellion can use to take down this weapon before it makes the Empire unbeatable.
Rogue One is beautiful to watch - not only as a Star Wars fan, but also in a more conventional sense - the planets show far more variety than we've previously seen and Scarif in particular is idyllic in a way that makes its use as a backdrop for what is a surprisingly gritty war film really appealing. The updated effects are respectful of Star Wars of old and seeing X-Wings and TIE Fighters in action is exhilarating. This is the Star Wars we all know seen through a very different lens. It's more gritty than any previous outing, and while we've seen many describe it as dark we disagree - Rogue One may be challenging, visceral and nail-biting - there are moments that made this reviewer wince, but it's never close to dark.
Does it all work? Maybe not - the CGI work is stunning - some of the best we've seen but there are certainly moments where some of the more adventurous and groundbreaking stuff doesn't quite feel 'right' - the uncanny valley has never looked more like a tiny uncanny dip, but it's still there. It's churlish to complain about this when you consider the effects disasters that the remastered Original Trilogy became with their veneer of late-added CGI or the dated cartoons that were the prequels. The humour sometimes misses the mark too but the addition of Alan Tudyk's K-2SO makes up for that with a much better take on a sardonic droid than C-3PO ever was.
Unlike previous Star Wars films that use the ongoing galactic wars as a setting for their relatively simple tales of good vs evil, placing us on the front lines Gareth Edwards' creation blurs the lines between the rebellion and Empire and there are moments where our heroes do very unheroic things. There's a real feeling of new in with the familiar and that's a great thing.
The nods to the 1977 original are copious - no spoilers here, but fans will be very pleased. They come surprisingly thick and fast too and while this reviewer can't speak for non-fans coming to the universe without any heavy background knowledge, the film shouldn't suffer any if these references are missed. Is Rogue One the best Star Wars since the original? No, but it could be be the best since Empire - it all depends on how rewatchable it is. The original trilogy could withstand repeat plays, something that J J Abrams managed to recapture with The Force Awakens; whether Rogue One is quite as tempting to return to will play out over the coming weeks but even so it's a fantastic winter action blockbuster.
Gritty, but far from dark, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story could be the best visit to a Galaxy far, far away since The Empire Strikes Back