Dark, gritty and heavy on the nostalgia, what Rogue One lacks in dialogue it makes up for in action.
In the canon of Star Wars movies, there are now essentially four chapters: The Originals, The Prequels, The Subsequents and The Spinoffs.
The Originals (Episodes IV-VI) are, and perhaps always will be, the best of the bunch; a genre-defining, special-effects revolutionising space saga of such epic proportions they remain, to this day, some of the most spectacular blockbusters ever made.
The Prequels (Episodes I-III) are, and hopefully always will be, the worst of the bunch; a child-focused, CGI-indulgent money spinner that played more like hastily written video games than films worthy of their iconic opening credits and characters.
The Subsequents (Episode VI-IX) are only one film in (with the second now in post-production), but the revitalization of the franchise was as welcome as it was strong; a thrilling (if also overly-familiar) reboot with a talented, multi-dimensional and engaging new trio of stars to pick up where Luke, Han and Leia left off.
Which just leaves The Spinoffs, beginning with Rogue One and soon, too, to include the Han Solo origin story. In a way, while it's not given its own Roman numerals, Rogue One is a sort of 'Episode III-point-V’; a nifty prelude to, and indeed explainer for, one of the most iconic 'please explains' in cinema history: the Death Star's infamous design flaw. In Rogue One, then, we find two stories: how the flaw got there and how the Rebel Alliance came to know about it. The former (and weaker) of these two tales occupies the first two-thirds of the movie, whilst the latter gives it its much needed closing momentum.
On the casting front, Rogue One is phenomenally strong, both in its leads and its supporting roles. Up front, Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, the abandoned daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a famed Imperial scientist whose work proves pivotal to both the inception and design of the Empire’s Death Star. Jones's dialogue does little to showcase her fine abilities, and indeed much of the film’s writing save for Forest Whitaker’s eccentric character Saw Gerera and the Alan Tudyk-voiced droid K-2SO (whose deadpan honesty shines brightly amongst the overwhelming gloom) leaves much to be desired.
On the positive side, though, we again find in the Star Wars universe a film where gender holds zero stock as either an insult or a differentiator. Whenever a character's abilities are called into question, it’s because of their experience or upbringing, not their reproductive organs, and Jyn is no exception. Alongside her, Diego Luna plays a conflicted assassin whose scenes repeatedly address the film’s preoccupation with the hazy moralities of war, whilst the villain in Rogue One is a ruthless egotist named Director Krennic - played magnificently by Australia's Ben Mendelsohn.
Though the additional characters are too numerous to mention, one does command further attention, albeit remaining nameless in the interests of avoiding spoilers. Suffice it to say, Rogue One reintroduces a key figure from the original Star Wars film, and does so by digitally recreating the deceased actor’s face and voicing him with an impersonator. The momentary joy experienced upon first seeing this familiar face quickly gives way to disappointment, however, as the CGI - whilst impressive - still falls short of believable. The result, which is again experienced in the film’s final moments with another character, pulls you out of the moment with such intensity that it repeatedly takes minutes to draw you back in after each appearance. As The Force Awakens proved, a tangible, human actor (in this case a lookalike, no matter how comparable) will always be preferable to a computer-generated one, and actors should sleep well at night knowing their wares are still entirely necessary.
In all, Rogue One is an impressive and engaging exercise in nostalgia, full of delightful nods to the original trilogy and even some cleverly spliced in original footage. The movie’s pacing, especially at the beginning, feels well off, jumping from character to character and location to location with surprising clumsiness, however its action sequences largely make amends, most notably the climactic final battle and the scenes showcasing the Death Star’s destructive capabilities, which even on their lowest power setting prove legitimately unsettling. Many Bothans may have died to bring us word of Death Star 2.0, but now, at long last, we can give names to those who did the same for the original, and it’s definitely worth the price of admission.