The Force isn't at full strength in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but it'll do
This review contains minor spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. You have been suitably warned.
Last year, JJ Abrams's The Force Awakens managed to achieve its goal of putting the Star Wars franchise back into its rightful place as a cinematic behemoth. This week, it's time for round two: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first truly rogue undertaking in the cinematic universe, not counting the thousands of ancillary books and TV shows that the lore of Star Wars has inspired over the years.
Directed by Gareth Edwards (the man behind Monsters and 2014's Godzilla) and produced by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, this first push away from the Skywalker saga and into a Marvel-esque expanded cinematic universe is a worrisome watch for the whole first half.
Your heart sinks with the unfamiliarity of the familiar world. The music is similar but not quite the same. Michael Giacchino's score is largely unmemorable for the most part, except for when he reprises John Williams's familiar anthems.
Even the loveable screwball banter provided by characters like Han Solo and Princess Leia - or even Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens - is entirely missing.
All this means the script feels like it was made in a lab, with extreme precision, the goal being to create THE perfect script. Worse, wit is its weak point, something even Edwards might have picked up on as he tries to keep it to a minimum, with just a few one-liners thrown in (including a cringeworthy one from the great Darth Vader himself).
But don't despair just yet.
The third act stupendously breaks away from the rest, when Rogue One fully embraces the action movie it is, and not the soap opera it was on the verge of becoming, giving fans everything they could have hoped for with this rogue spinoff.
A new beginning
Rogue One is the first to be less interested in matters of the Force and larger battles. It's sort of a cog (albeit an exceptionally important cog) that enables the bigger picture, which we know all too well from the many episodes that follow.
The action takes place shortly before the events of 1977's A New Hope and centres on a rebel mission to steal Death Star blueprints that reveal its fatal flaw.
Jyn Erso (a steely Felicity Jones), the daughter of a Rebellion scientist (Mads Mikkelsen), who was abducted and forcibly made to become a key architect on a planet-annihilating weapon the Empire is building - the Death Star - is pulled out of hiding when an Imperial pilot commits treason to pass on an all important message from her dad - the fatal flaw he deliberately put inside the Death Star.
She's accompanied by a bunch of underdogs, which includes Rebellion spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Firefly's Alan Tudyk), treasonous Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (a horribly wasted Riz Ahmed), blind but Force sensitive Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and his friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), the heavy weapons guy.
Rogue One's main problem isn't that any of these characters are unlikeable or badly cast - every performance is more or less solid. We just never get any time to connect with any character other than Jyn, leaving everyone else as just vague sketches with empty pasts.
But the cast does feature more diversity and representation than any Star Wars film to date - just what 2016 needed.
The most crowd-pleasing stuff, however, comes courtesy of the villains. Ben Mendelsohn is magnificent as the white-caped, forever pissed off Imperial Director Orson Krennic.
Better yet, Peter Cushing, who died 22 years ago, is also all over Rogue One. It's a weird mix of CGI trickery and fits in perfectly with the dark undertones of the movie.
But it's the two Darth Vader (voiced once again by James Earl Jones) scenes in the movie that are likely to become a part of the 'Best Vader Moments' collection, what with all the Force using and Lightsaber swinging.
Stylistically, particularly in the second act, it's clear to see the number of hours of loving research spent to make this part of the Star Wars universe. You can see that Edwards and his team are ultimate fanboys, something even JJ Abrams proved with The Force Awakens. The result: the effects are outstanding, as are the costumes and creature work.
"It's the one film that you know it's gonna make its money back," Edwards said in an interview. Well, there's no doubt about that - The Force Awakens may have reanimated the franchise, but Rogue One is the rebel that will give Star Wars fans a new hope.
After all, "rebellions are built on hope", and Rogue One is as rebellious as it gets.