Rogue One is the first stand-alone instalment in the Star Wars Anthology series. Directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards (best known for successfully rebooting the Godzilla franchise back in 2014), the film stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a fugitive from the Galactic Empire who finds herself caught up in a Rebel Alliance plot to steal the plans for the recently completed Death Star. Part space opera, part war film, Rogue One is sort of the Saving Private Ryan of Star Wars movies. There are still space battles and stormtroopers and strange-looking alien species but underlying it all is a rather gritty, grim story about a squad of hastily assembled heroes setting out on a dangerous, all-but-doomed mission to strike a small blow against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.
Rogue One occupies the chronological real estate between the end of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and the beginning of Episode IV – A New Hope. Unlike J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens it steers clear of intergenerational Skywalker family drama and instead focuses a host of new characters. The film’s primary antagonist is Imperial Director Orson Krennic (played by Ben Mendelsohn with an interesting hint of his native Australian accent). Krennic tears young Jyn’s family apart in Rogue One’s opening sequence when he forcibly recruits her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to work on a new superweapon designed to destroy entire planets.
Thirteen years later we are introduced to a much more taciturn and wary-eyed adult Jyn. After the Rebel Alliance help her escape from a labour camp Jyn reluctantly agrees to help them track down her father by recovering a holographic message he recently had smuggled to her former guardian, rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Rebel Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial security droid K-2SO (delightfully voiced by Alan Tudyk) are assigned to accompany Jyn on her mission. They are later joined by former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind warrior monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and fierce mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).
Rogue One does suffer from a somewhat staccato storytelling rhythm in its first and second acts. Each individual scene is well written and nicely structured but the connective tissue between scenes is often lacking as the narrative jumps erratically between locations and characters. These issues completely melt away however, once Rogue One enters its audacious third act. The climatic battle takes place on a gorgeous tropical planet that represents a fresh and visually distinct new environment for the franchise. Edwards brings an intensity and humanity to the film’s combat scenes, particularly the breathlessly thrilling final sequence that gracefully links Rogue One with the original trilogy.