Forget who shot first. For even the biggest of Star Wars fans, the most indefensible plot point has always been the vulnerability in the Death Star that made it so impossibly easy for Luke Skywalker to blow it up. But now, 39 years after A New Hope birthed the franchise of all franchises, director Gareth Edwards has cleaned up that egregious flaw by putting its ideation at the center of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Rogue One is the first standalone film set in the galaxy far, far away, but it serves as an effective and illuminating prequel to Episode IV, ending just minutes before Darth Vader captures Princess Leia and C-3P0 and R2-D2 go looking for Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Galen Erso, played by Mads Mikkelsen in a welcomed departure from villainy, is a brilliant scientist who’s been coerced by the Empire into designing the Death Star. He leaves behind a daughter, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who grows into the leader of the band of rebels who steal the plans for the catastrophic weapon. Their mission takes them across planets, outposts, and moons as they must first authenticate whether there even is a Death Star. Of course, there is, and we see a fraction of its power as it’s used to to eradicate an entire community in an astonishingly beautiful scene. It’s just one of Edwards’ many incredible, explosive set pieces, and for all the flack that Vox has caught, Rogue One is indeed the most war-immersed Star Wars flick yet. The consequences of war and the scale of the Empire’s reach have never been this realized, which makes for a more rugged film than fans are used to.
Rogue One is also surprisingly emotional, thanks to some superb performances. Without spoiling anything, our band of rebels is comprised of diverse characters with disparate motivations and tactics. Those most at odds with each other are Jyn and Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and when their tension finally boils over, the writing is effective enough to have you truly understand both sides. As Edwards has said, this is a film that lives in gray areas. No character is more indicative of that than Andor, whose complexity makes him the more compelling of the two leads. A rebel intelligence officer, he reads more like someone out of a modern CIA thriller than anyone we’ve seen before in Star Wars. And an early, shocking scene with him will leave you without any question of who shot first.
That’s no shade to Jones, who’s terrific firing a blaster and grappling with the repercussions of a father who’s seen as a traitor, but her initial reluctance to join the rebellion is too clunky and underdeveloped. Riz Ahmed, who plays a defected Imperial pilot named Bodhi Rook, continues his hot streak from The Night Of; Donnie Yen of Ip Man fame is Chirrut Îmwe, the Force-believing (but not sensitive) blind warrior (and badass); and Ben Mendelsohn’s Director Orson Krennic is a light but still enjoyable version of Christoph Waltz’ Hans Landa in Inglorious Bastards, to continue Star Wars’ allusions to Nazis; But the greatest scene-stealer is K-2SO, voiced and motion-captured by Alan Tudyk. Droids always serve as Star Wars’ comic relief, and Tudyk takes his in a new direction with a hilariously frank and self-serving demeanor. His impeccable timing makes every joke land with the full force of a seven-foot-tall robot.
While it doesn’t benefit from some of Star Wars’ most iconic imagery in its bid to tell a story without lightsabers, Rogue One is a shockingly tight Star Wars film. (One of the appropriately scarce Darth Vader scenes is possibly the most viscerally satisfying depiction of him ever.) Largely unburdened by fan service, it’s free to simply take us on an exhilarating, affecting, and refreshing adventure. And by giving an appropriate backstory to that Death Star weak spot, it’s even made A New Hope better. Edwards credits Star Wars with inspiring him to become a director, but it’s George Lucas who should be indebted to him.