Director: Gareth Edwards

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Release Date: Thursday 15th December 2016

It’s been a tough few years for Star Wars naysayers. Those glorious heydays of the early 2000’s when prequel-bashing was all the rage seemed to have temporarily been forged anew when the purists and devotees took a collective gasp at none other than Disney acquiring the keys to Skywalker Ranch back in 2012 (blithely and naively glossing over the presence of producer extraordinaire Kathleen Kennedy). Then last year’s The Force Awakens was released and pretty much everyone loved - or the very least liked - it, and it even prompted a whole wave of people to re-evaluate whether or not they’d maybe been a bit too harsh on Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians and the frustration of sand.

So, sadly but inevitably, the tide shifted to blaming the House of Mouse and J.J. Abrams for apparently being too derivative. Too Familiar, recycled, rehashed. Timid even. Yes, the new reason to hate Star Wars was because Disney were just playing it all far too safe.

Enter Rogue One.

At surface value, one could try and levy the same critique at Gareth Edwards’ first ‘anthology’ /‘A Star Wars Story’ entry into the franchise. It’s a film which posits itself between episodes III and IV in the main numerical series, the kind of inter-episodic fare that Disney and Lucasfilm have shown themselves plenty willing to indulge in with the likes of the numerous Clone Wars series and films, and their latest, Rebels

And look, isn’t that Darth Vader and the Death Star we’ve seen popping up literally here, there and everywhere?

In truth though, Rogue One is a masterfully confident and original slice of genre fare which only gingerly leans on the wider Star Wars heritage and mainstays, instead prioritising front and centre the telling of a compelling, exciting adventure all of its own.

In fact, with it’s planet-hopping escapades, an ensemble of original, enjoyable and well-defined characters and extremely tight balancing of both the fun and the drama, Rogue One seems to just get Star Wars in a way even George Lucas ultimately (and ironically) failed to do so. It’s littered with invention and detail, be it visual, thematic or narrative, and whilst, yes, there are a few occasionally clumsy cameos or nods to the wider franchise, these are for the most part both fleeting and in all honesty quite fun. This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a film about, or even overly concerned with, Darth Vader, for instance, despite what marketing may lead you to believe.

MVP here is Gareth Edwards and his superb handling of all of Rogue One’s disparate parts. This is an ensemble piece, make no mistake, and it’s remarkable that for a film in which we go into already roughly know the outcome of, Edwards not only crafts the journey into a thrilling and immensely satisfying one, but he also deftly moulds a sizeable roster of characters into a well realised ragtag collective who we genuinely come to root for in a way that isn’t a million miles away from the rebels and jedi of the original trilogy.

And it has to be said, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and her team, a plucky gang of rebels who come together in an attempt to locate and steal the plans to the Galactic Empire’s terrifying new super weapon, are painted in far less broad strokes than Luke Skywalker and pals. Jones makes for an engaging, moving lead whose plight, anguish and motivations feel personal and real, whilst Diego Luna is fantastic as the galaxy-weary, pragmatic Cassian, a charming and roguish (forgive the pun) figure who mercifully steps nowhere near Han Solo’s shadow. Where the original trilogy’s band of heroes worked so well as the loveable archetypes perfectly portrayed in a big sweeping romantic epic, Rogue One’s earthier and grittier story demands a more diverse and complicated cast of characters, and here Edwards and his cast more than deliver.

In fact, Rogue One delivers on practically every front. Yes, it’s a little heavier and more downbeat than most of it’s predecessors, but that’s by dint of the story being told, and if those rumours of panicked-studio reshoots for the purpose of adding extra humour to the piece hold any water, then they may at least have been responsible for us getting plenty of witty one-liners and zingers throughout, mostly courtesy of Alan Tudyk’s wonderfully dry droid K-2SO.

Elsewhere, some may bemoan the slightly overwrought finale for slip sliding a little too close to standard Star Wars fare and getting a touch silly in places (just wait until you meet the ‘Hammerhead’), but it’s peppered with some fantastic action and set pieces, and its denouement is both beautifully poignant and fist-clinchingly awesome in equal measure. A detour midway through to a character's 'lair' feels overblown, self-aware and indulgent. There’s the potentially divisive CG recreation of a legacy character or two which may prove jarring for the keener eyed of viewers, though in truth the technology and animation work on display is extremely impressive. And of course, being the first ‘spin off’ in the franchise, don’t be expecting an opening crawl, or be too surprised when the busy opening 20 minutes starts giving you on-screen geographical planet prompts a la Guardians of the Galaxy.

But to nitpick on the smaller points or spoil too many of the many delights and surprises of Rogue One would be to do the film a huge disservice. This is the most exploratory, exciting, unexpected and, well, Star Wars-esque that a cinema has felt in memory. Edwards has directed a fantastic, moving, beautiful looking and sharply executed blockbuster that actually, if anything, makes The Force Awakens look a touch pedestrian and, yes, almost painfully unoriginal by comparison. Creatively, it is the best possible starting point Lucasfilm and Disney could have hoped for with their forthcoming lineup of anthology plans, and is by some measure the boldest and most assured piece of filmmaking the franchise has offered since The Empire Strikes Back.

Haters, it may be time to hang up the lightsabers.

RATING - ★★★★★

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