It’s easy to be cynical about Star Wars.

A franchise that is nearly forty years spanning film, video games, comics, and television (which has mostly been good, but also equally bad) is an easy target for pessimism. Money-grabbing and pandering are words that get tossed around a lot, with the so-called “purists” condemning anything that isn’t part of the holy trinity.

So you don’t really have to wonder the reaction amongst the fandom following the reveal of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story which would not be a part of the ongoing saga but instead be its own standalone film inside the universe. Doubt was sparked, which then got stoked into a bigger fire once it was revealed that the signature opening crawl would be omitted (gasp) and that the music wouldn’t be done by John Williams (instead by the masterful Michael Giacchino ). Yet for all the moaning and groaning, I held out hope that Rogue One would be different enough of a film than the rest of the series—and boy is it.

While we know from A New Hope that the Death Star’s plans have been stolen and smuggled to the Rebel Alliance, we don’t know the why or how. Rogue One wants to tell us. Going in, we can expect that obviously things probably don’t go smoothly—but we know its a success. The nice thing is, Rogue One doesn’t ever make us doubt that they would succeed, but rather makes the how and why even more thrilling and suspenseful.

Centering the story around Jyn Erso, played by the ever-incredible and wonderful Felicity Jones, we come to learn that she, like Rey in Force Awakens, hasn’t exactly had the greatest of childhoods and has largely had to rely on her own skills and wit to survive. Her father, Galen, is the brains behind the Death Star and is taken from her at a young age to work on the planet-killer—and now is one of the Rebel’s most wanted targets. Jones is the heart of the film, and she can be frustrating at time due to her lone-wolf approach to most problems, but Jones makes her feel alive and relatable.

The opening act of the film jumps around a lot as it introduces us to most diverse cast in a movie all year, and it can kinda make your head spin a bit as you try to get your bearings in a Star Wars film that doesn’t have anybody you immediately recognize. Sure there are familiar names and faces, some of which may surprise you, but ultimately this is a new cast of characters.

As this is a standalone film it’s hard to juggle the introduction of all these badass and often unforgettable characters with the story and still try and give them depth. At times it really is unfortunate because when you have character’s like Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor who leads the team and has his own reasons for fighting, or Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook who defects from the Empire to spread word of the Death Star’s construction, you end up wanting so much more out of them.

Thankfully their memorability—like the blind Chirrut îmwe and K-2SO, a robot whose attitude and dialogue can simply be described as “fuck-it”—is enough to make us forgive the thin writing which at times rears its ugly head for some head-scratching plot holes and overly-long sequences.

Along with the introduction of a whole new slew of characters, we also get to explore planets and locales never seen before. With breathtaking cinematography, we not only get stunning shots of these planets, but also grim, realistic battle sequences that feel like the most intense the series has ever offered. There are life and death circumstances here—with more of a war film feeling than the action/adventure of the saga—and never a minute of fighting goes by where you don’t worry that one of these people might die. 

Director Gareth Edwards (whose last film was the mostly-effective Godzilla) directs with the glee of a fanboy who knows better than to tirelessly appeal to nostalgia like Abrams did, but he still delivers on moments we never knew were coming, keeping his cool and composure to make a tight, suspenseful film that gives the fans what they want without feeling too forced. His sense of scope, color, and tone make this film its own beast, and it’s one to be reckoned with. 

To read reviews that declare Rogue One as one of the best Star Wars films ever might be jumping the gun, but it’s hard to deny that it is definitely the most impressive film of the series. Balancing massive battles, a galaxy-hopping story, some painful truths, all with the message of hope is no easy task, but thanks to the awesome—though thinly-written—characters, a superb sense of direction, and the best cinematography the series has to offer, Rogue One proves itself a triumphant addition to one of the greatest sagas of all time.

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