At midnight tonight, 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' lands in UK cinemas. Launching a planned series of standalone spin-offs, the movie takes place within the Star Wars universe. But, for the first time since those ropey Ewok movies in the '80s, it doesn't centre on the Skywalker clan (unless you count a couple of brief but memorable cameos from Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader). Tracking the efforts of one rebel band to steal the plans to the Empire's terrifying new battle station the Death Star, the film shares DNA with the Star Wars you love, but also feels bracingly new. Here's why...
1. It's surprisingly grim
When the going gets tough, the tough grab blasters. The Star Wars saga has never been a stranger to grit (remember Luke stumbling across the scorched bodies of his aunt and uncle in the very first movie?). But 'Rogue One' takes things a step further, offering up a cast of 'heroes' who aren't afraid to make tough choices in the service of the Rebel Alliance. This feels like a universe in the grip of war, and no one's coming out unscathed.
2. It's properly political
We can all have a good laugh about those #dumpstarwars fanboys on Twitter throwing a fit because their beloved franchise has started giving weight to the contributions of women and people of colour (conveniently ignoring the fact that Star Wars has always been progressive in its politics). But 'Rogue One' is downright subversive, depicting as heroes a group of Rebel outcasts who are quite happy to throw IEDs under the wheels of Imperial tanks.
3. The Force is not an option
'Rogue One' takes place in the so-called 'dark times', after the Jedi have been all but wiped out by Darth Vader and his Imperial legions. With no lightsabers and no crazy mind powers, our heroes are forced to use old-fashioned techniques like whacking stormtroopers with sticks to achieve their ends. It does feel a bit odd to have a Star Wars movie without the Force – some of that old mystical magic is missing. But 'Rogue One' makes up for it with muscle.
4. It looks incredible
This might be the most visually stunning 'Star Wars' movie ever: the landscapes are epic, the sets feel real and lived-in, and everything's covered with a lovely layer of grit and sand. Sure, there's CGI, but it's far more subtly used than in the plasticky prequels or even in last year's 'The Force Awakens'. For fans, the biggest joy might be the look of the Imperial star destroyers: they may have been created in a computer, but they look like they've been fashioned out of old Airfix kits.
5. The comedy droid sidekick is actually funny
Sure, we're all fond of C-3PO – but, be honest, ol' Goldenrod does have a tendency to waffle on. 'Rogue One' offers us K-2SO, another tall droid with a clipped English accent (provided, improbably, by Texas-born 'Firefly' co-star Alan Tudyk) and a tendency to tell his human counterparts the odds of survival (they're never good). But the comparisons end there: K-2 is a dry, sardonic delight, the breakout star of the movie. Expect ring-pull dolls that say 'I find that argument to be vague and unconvincing' to be the must-have toy this Christmas...
'Rogue One' is in cinemas tonight – and don't forget to keep an eye on Time Out Film for all the latest film news and reviews.