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Until now, the good-evil split in Star Wars has been as cleanly cut as well-carved turkey meat: light and dark tidily arranged on opposite sides of the plate. Rogue One gets stuck into the giblets.
This is the first in a potentially endless series of Star Wars Stories spun off from the franchise’s humming fulcrum, and it sides with the Rebellion, which is exactly as you’d expect. But this time the good guys aren’t just tousled rascals but rather a covert cell of self-described spies, saboteurs and assassins, staining their hands and consciences in the struggle.
As such, in terms of atmosphere and structure, Rogue One is less of a nostalgia bath than The Force Awakens, last Christmas’s two-billion-grossing franchise-reviver.
But Star Wars hardcore fans, of which a few reportedly exist, don’t need to panic: the thing is crammed with the kind of guest-starrings and callbacks, from beloved incidental characters to sly recreations of specific frames from the original trilogy, that make multiple viewings a necessity.
As promised, Darth Vader’s back, with a box-fresh helmet and cape: three scenes only, though each one’s very worth it. Elsewhere, the late Peter Cushing is digitally resurrected as Death Star boss Moff Tarkin: there’s an eerie nervelessness about the results from certain angles, but given Cushing, a Hammer Horror veteran, exuded an aura of undeath at his professional best, he might be the ideal candidate for the procedure.
More startling still is the flawless, single-shot CG recreation of a young Princess Leia: send your thoughts and prayers to the Beverly Hills facelift clinics about to be engulfed by angry customers demanding whatever Carrie Fisher got.
Rogue One’s promise of something familiar but different makes it something of a tightrope walk: even Michael Giacchino’s score, the first in the franchise not to be composed by John Williams, starts its main theme with that epic ascending fifth before veering off to melodic pastures new.
But director Gareth Edwards and his cast and crew strike an agile balance throughout. Take the prologue, where the former Empire technologist Galen Erso (a nobly anguished Mads Mikkelsen) is captured by Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, deliciously hateful, with a throat you can’t wait to see Force-strangled), who needs his expert input in the crafting of a new Imperial super-weapon. Galen’s hideout is on a previously unseen planet called Lah’mu. It’s all green hills and blackened desert, and hid in a mist so thick it trickles down the top of Krennic’s officer’s cap.
The place looks like nothing you’ve seen before in Star Wars – but as you’re scrambling for your bearings, the camera slips into Galen’s farmhouse, and there’s a jug of Luke Skywalker’s favourite blue milk on the kitchen worktop. Everything different comes sprinkled with crumbs of the familiar.
That means despite its darker tone, Rogue One feels cosily at home in the Star Wars universe, and is crowded with the kind of imagination-tickling details the franchise thrives on. The movie’s world is entirely physical, full of boxy stuffs that hiss and clunk. X-Wings skitter across a planetary defence shield like curling stones on ice, while top secret data sits on hard disks the size of cheese toasties.
One sequence alone – a bazaar on the pilgrim moon of Jedha, teeming with astounding creature puppets – generates enough sparks for 10 further spin-off movies at least.
Somewhere in the throng is Galen’s long-lost daughter Jyn Erso (a spirited Felicity Jones) – raised in the interim by Forest Whitaker’shardline Rebel zealot, Saw Gerrera – who appeared from Rogue One’s trailers to be quite decisively the movie’s lead character.
She is, just about – even though the plot, in which a secret holo-message from Jyn’s father leads to the crucial discovery of the Death Star’s notorious weak spot, is one in which she gradually emerges as a heroine courtesy of the help of her accompanying rag-tag ensemble.
This team proves tricky to assemble, both in-film and outside of it: particularly in its first act, the storytelling can feel multi-branched and muddled as the cast members’ threads are laboriously tied up. For a while, hardly a sequence passes in which someone isn’t kidnapped and dragged to a date with the next key character – although the characters themselves, from Riz Ahmed’s defecting Imperial pilot to Donnie Yen’s Zatoichi-like blind martial artist, are a textured and captivating bunch.
They’re led by Rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his drily comic robot sidekick K-2SO (voiced byAlan Tudyk) – and once Jyn is completely inducted into the cause, the bigger picture begins to coalesce.
It’s often very big indeed: Edwards’s stint at the 2014 Godzilla reboot’s helm makes him no stranger to earth-ripping set-pieces, and Rogue One’s have been conceived and executed with serious dazzle and grace. But in Rouge One’s best moments, there’s a yarn-spinning intimacy to it too – an ancient war tale told around a spectacular campfire.