Aside from the seven episodes of cinema produced previously, other areas of the Star Wars expanded universe have long been explored through mediums such as novels, comic books and video games. A series of stand-alone spin-offs are now planned which are being referred to as the Anthology, and the first of this kind is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards, it is set in between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, shortly before 1977’s Episode IV – A New Hope. The plot follows rebel fighter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a societal outcast who is approached by The Alliance to assist with their mission to thwart the Galactic Empire’s plan to build a deadly super-weapon. Reluctantly, she agrees, teaming up with fellow rebel Cassian (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), but the merciless Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) will stop at nothing to see his assignment through to the bitter end.
With this chapter of the overall narrative finding itself wedged between two existing instalments, Episode 3.5 if you will, there’s a degree of restriction in terms of finding its place within the beloved franchise. Edwards gives the piece a slightly darker, murky tone which cleverly distances itself from the risk of simply emulating what has come before, but with frequent nods of nostalgia, some more subtle than others, it still feels very much like a Star Wars movie. The complex chronicle is crafted with fanboy intricacies in mind, but flows in an engaging and exciting way that will entertain audiences that aren’t overly familiar with the saga. An assembly of new faces are introduced which results in slow and steady pacing for the opening hour or so, as strands of story are carefully intertwined. The build up blurs the lines somewhat between good and evil, or light versus dark. Instead, both sides are seen to be operating in dirty grey areas as their brutal war ensues. When the action does get underway, it refuses to let up, culminating in an exhilarating action-packed finale that delivers a few awe-inspiring moments that could in time become held in as high regard as the iconic scenes from the originals.
With a film crammed full of characters, it proves difficult for the actors to stand up and be counted, and some suffer from having pretty limited screen time. Felicity Jones is given the most depth to work with in plucky heroine Jyn Erso, and her performance is excellent. She gives the protagonist the required arse-kicking qualities of an action war-hero, but maintains a sense of vulnerability born from her traumatic past. There’s a scramble for supporting stardom, with Forrest Whitaker enjoying the material a little too much as rebel extremist Saw Gerrera and Donnie Yen revelling in spiritualism as blind Jedi-wannabe Chirrut Îmwe. Stand-out turns come from Ben Mendelsohn, who is expectantly impressive as the cowardly villain, and Riz Ahmed who shines as an Imperial defector, an interesting theme that has been woven through the new wave so far.
Rogue One is an epic feat of sci-fi storytelling, beautifully made by a self-professed Star Wars fanboy. It has the passion of fan-fiction but on the biggest scale imaginable, showing respect to the status of Star Wars yet with a playful freedom to stray from the expected formulaic structure. Starting out a long time ago as the famous opening title crawl of the first cinematic trip to a galaxy far, far away this is a story that probably didn’t need to be told but I for one am very pleased that it has been. Gareth Edwards delivers a forceful stand-alone that definitely stands up to the best of the rest.