This breakaway Star Wars movie – set some time just before the first film – is a punchy standalone action tale about a spunky resistance group within the Rebel Alliance. This ragtag band of fighters, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, a complicated, not always endearing heroine, refreshingly), come together to lead an attack on the Empire – whose most visible military stooge is Orson Krennic, played with quiet menace and oily ambition by Ben Mendelsohn.
It’s a scrappy, frenetic film, a bit irreverent, and it muddies ideas of good and evil, introducing unexpected shades of grey. It also kicks into touch a lot of the quasi-spiritual stuff you might expect: the Force is not especially strong here, and lo-fi battle skills turn out to be more important. Going back in time also proves a neat way of resurrecting the pleasures of the earlier films – not least the spiffing banter of battling X-Wing pilots, the Lego-like look of the Star Destroyers and the sight of Darth Vader at his most furious.
The more you remember of the 1977 movie ‘Star Wars’, the more the story of ‘Rogue One’ makes sense. In that film, Princess Leia had in her possession plans for the Empire’s Death Star: plans that would help the Rebels to destroy it. Here, Jyn Erso receives a message from her father (Mads Mikkelsen), who she hasn’t seen for years: he’s been forced to work for the Empire as the chief engineer on the Death Star. But he’s built a flaw into this weaponised behemoth and wants his daughter to destroy it.
Jyn’s politicisation is one of the most interesting things about ‘Rogue One’. She goes from jaded Empire citizen (‘It’s not a problem if you don’t look up,’ she says of the imperial flag) to full-blown gun-toting revolutionary working out her daddy issues at the heart of the Rebel Alliance. Around her, characters played by the likes of Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna and Donnie Yen all bring compelling backstories to the table. The idea of a resistance group as a union of vaguely overlapping, often conflicting instincts is a smart and powerful one.
‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ benefits from not having the weight of resurrecting a franchise on its shoulders, meaning that it’s able to go places that the main Star Wars episodes wouldn’t dare. Like ‘The Force Awakens’, it plays on echoes of the earlier stories. But those echoes are quieter, as if the reawakened series has taken on a new confidence. On the down side, all but the most dedicated Star Wars nut might find the first hour or so of intense planet-hopping and scene-setting in ‘Rogue One’ a little confusing. And there’s a digital character that will be divisive: perhaps not as divisive as Jar Jar Binks in the prequels, but expect debate to rage. This is an imperfect film, bold but occasionally baffling, and one that in its final act grows into something much more exciting than you might initially expect.