The year leading up to Rogue One’s release has been plagued with production trouble stories and the overwhelming sense that Disney’s Star Wars standalone series is destined to be little more than a protracted toy marketing cash grab. But the film itself, while no means perfect, makes an interesting statement about the future of Lucasfilm.

Fans were understandably frustrated when the Expanded Universe was officially jettisoned from canon last year. This move was designed to give the studio breathing room to freely create new content for its IP without being beholden to the vast network of disjointed stories told between the release of the original trilogy and the present. Rogue One should give those frustrated devotees some measure of comfort, as it has been produced, through all its problems, with the spirit of the Expanded Universe in mind.

The film is a prequel story of sorts, taking place just before A New Hope and chronicling the tale of how the Rebel Alliance came into possession of the Death Star plans. In interviews preceding the film’s announcement, director Gareth Edwards assured audiences this movie would exist outside the accepted Star Wars paradigm, presenting the idea of a dark and brooding war film that just happens to take place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. That mission statement made it through production largely intact, despite fears to the contrary. Decades of world building done by George Lucas and every other creative hand to touch the mythos have left untold pockets of fertile ground to explore, so taking a detour from the Skywalker saga is a welcome diversion.

Instead of a farm boy Jedi, we follow Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a criminal who was raised by extremist Clone Wars vet Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) after her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), was taken away by the empire. Galen was once a science officer with a brilliant mind who could no longer bear to see his intellect exploited to serve fascism. His former colleague, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), seeks him out, murders his wife and puts him to work on the greatest weapon the galaxy has ever seen, The Death Star. Jyn gets broken out of prison by the Rebels to be used as a lure to bring Saw out of hiding so they can get to her father. Jyn assumes it will be to rescue him from the empire, but Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), has other orders. Along the way, they end up putting together a ragtag crew of broken souls to prevent the most destructive force in existence.

For much of the film’s first half, Rogue One truly does feel like its own special thing. Edwards and his cinematographer Greig Fraser work to strike a visual balance, tempering the widescreen operatic space grandeur with muted tones and rough textures. Grounded in this dim, wounded aesthetic, the ongoing battle between the rebels and the empire feels like a real war, not the simple black hat/white hat binary the core trilogy presents. The heroes make understandable compromises that the earlier films hint at, but never fully portray. The movie feels intimate, urgent and heavy without sacrificing spectacle. It’s able to stoke the imagination of its audience and tap into what makes Star Wars so special while still existing as its own exploration into the complexities of war. (This is never more apparent than in a blaster shootout on the planet Jedha that looks and feels dangerously close to the last ten years of Middle East conflict cinema.)

Much of what makes this possible is the brilliant cast. Despite passing through countless hands (among them, Michael Clayton director and Bourne series scribe Tony Gilroy), the script is largely coherent and sharper than one might expect, but it’s the performers who really make the words sing. With the notable exception of Forest Whitaker (who seems to be continuing the baffling on screen work Vincent D’Onofrio began in The Magnificent Seven), every single player possesses the requisite gravitas to elevate what, in most cases, amounts to little more than character sketches. Mikkelsen in particular maximizes his brief screen time, leveraging heretofore unplumbed reservoirs of compassion and sincerity to become the film’s beating, tear-inducing heart. In the film’s prologue, he sets the tone for the rest of the actors and everyone follows suit in terms of emotional honesty.

Mendelsohn is deliciously slimy as the careerist Krennic and Donnie Yen, as the blind Force devotee Chirrut Imwe balances comedic relief with pathos brilliantly. The film’s real standout, though, isn’t ever seen on screen. “Firefly” vet Alan Tudyk voices K-2SO, a repurposed Imperial enforcer droid who is a complete asshole. His unique blend of sarcasm and gallows humor exemplifies the best of what Rogue One has to offer, popcorn entertainment with some substance and legitimate drama that isn’t afraid to make you laugh.

Rogue One falters as the runtime progresses, largely because the film’s narrative pulls it closer and closer to the world of A New Hope and the requisite litany of fan service winks, nods and cameos the diehards might have rioted in the absence of. None of it is egregious enough to ruin the movie, but it does undercut some of the hard work the film’s first half puts in towards separating itself from what limited The Force Awakens. Pandering aside, Rogue One is a thrilling action movie with real stakes, believable characters and some stirring emotional beats. That it takes place in the same world as Darth Vader should be a bonus, not the selling point.

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