At long last, a prequel that doesn’t suck.

Major spoilers follow – if you haven’t watched the movie yet, get to a theater near you!

Much has already been said about the Star Wars cinematic universe so let’s get this out the way quickly: the originals are gold, the prequels suck, and The Force Awakens did a decent job of reinvigorating the franchise. We can’t change the past, we can only delight in what Lucas got right, and hope for a better series of films now that Disney is at the helm.

Hope is a significant word, actually. It’s used throughout this film and features heavily in the trailers and posters. Only at the end, in the climactic scene with a very familiar face, do we realize what they’ve done to bridge the gap between Episodes III and IV.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To the question at hand: is Rogue One any good?

Oh yes. It’s terrific. In fact, director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) has one-upped JJ Abrams with a film that fully signals the comeback of the Star Wars franchise.

Rewind to the 1977 original (literally, if you’ve got it on VHS). The iconic opening crawl features this line:

crawl“During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR…”

This statement, along with several references to “stolen data tapes”, “intercepted transmissions”, and “plans provided by Princess Leia”, form the basis for Rogue One, a spin-off prequel about the theft of the Death Star’s digital blueprints.

I suppose George Lucas had little idea that this succinct summary of events would one day be made into a stand-alone film, let alone that it would be one the best Star Wars films of the franchise.

Yep, Rogue One is super good. It’s got stars (real ones and Death ones), blue milk (seriously, is that all they drink on moisture farms?), Stormtrooper dolls (Imperial propaganda?) and more importantly, it’s got war – a vision of the galactic conflict that exceeds all previous Star Wars dogfights and ground offensives.

It also enhances the original 1977 Star Wars with its layers of backstory that give the first film additional depth and meaning.

A ragtag team from the Rebel Alliance, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) band together for a planet-hopping adventure that leads them to discover the film’s central truth: that the Death Star has a major internal weakness that can be exploited for its destruction.

It’s a great idea, especially when the running joke about the Death Star in recent years has been its glaring vulnerability: how can the Galactic Empire’s humongous, planet-vaporizing space-station, an undoubtedly expensive architectural and engineering marvel, have an unprotected thermal exhaust that leads directly to the core reactor?

Well, it turns out that Jyn Erso’s father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is “recruited” at the beginning of the film by the conniving and megalomaniacal Orsen Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to head the engineering of the Death Star. Except he purposely designed a secret weakness in the battle station – a flaw that allows Luke Skywalker to blow it to smithereens in Episode IV. This backstory rejiggering of the plot neatly restores the idea that the Death Star is a seriously engineered technological terror and not a poorly constructed weapon of mass destruction.

ersoRogue One also expands our view of the Rebel Alliance. In George Lucas’ vision of Star Wars, the warring sides were unambiguous in their morality; you’re either good or evil – with the Empire or against it. In Rogue One, things are slightly more complex. Andor admits he’s done dirty things in the name of the Alliance; Galen is outwardly allegiant to the Empire but secretly works to undermine it. Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is a defecting Imperial cargo pilot who brings Galen’s message to Saw Gerrera (played by the great Forest Whitaker), himself an outcast rebel, disowned by the Alliance for being too extreme.

Rounding out the good guys are Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), mercenaries and rebel warriors. Îmwe is blind and a believer in the Force. His martial arts expertise and “I’m one with the Force and the Force is with me” mantra make him the closest we get to a Jedi in this film. Malbus is a hardened warrior and Îmwe’s best friend. The two play off each other well and their camaraderie rings true.

While it’s not Game of Thrones in its character complexity, Rogue One at least presents a more varied team of players with backstory and motivation. In an early scene, Andor shoots a fellow rebel whose dead weight threatens to compromise their position. It’s cold, pragmatic, and unlike anything we’ve seen a member of the Alliance do before.

If the prequels cast a spotlight on the politics of intergalactic war, Rogue One explores its morally-fractured shadow.

The film comes with many other gifts. In an amazing feat of digital trickery, Industrial Light and Magic have recreated Grand Moff Tarkin from Episode IV who looks and talks just like Peter Cushing, the late actor who originally played him. Not only does he have several speaking lines but he gets more screen time than Cushing did in the original Star Wars! It’s a wonderful use of CGI (much better than when they recreated a young Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy) and necessary given that Tarkin is very much in charge of the Death Star by the time Episode IV is in play.

Then there’s the obligatory robot, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). A reprogrammed Imperial Droid who looks like the Iron Giant’s smaller cousin, he becomes the heart of the film and the dude with the best one-liners.

k-2so

Now I’ve always believed that a mark of great filmmaking is when the audience feels for a robot or digitally-rendered character. When K-2SO faces certain death at the hands of Imperial Stormtroopers, he goes out in a self-sacrificial blaze of glory – arguably the film’s most emotional moment. That a droid can elicit such a response is testament to how well this film was made.

But Rogue One’s cherry on top has to be Darth Vader.

When’s the last time we saw Vader being the most intimidating villain in the galaxy? The Empire Strikes Back, right? Whether he was Force-choking his incompetent admirals, fending off Han Solo’s blaster with his hands, or dueling with Luke on Bespin, Vader moved with an elegant but restrained menace – a confident master of the Dark Side.

Well Disney figured they’d dial him up several notches, perhaps to remind people that he really is a frightening foe and not a benign Halloween costume. Best of all, they saved his full terror for last.

vaderIn the final few minutes of the film, when some curiously familiar-looking rebel soldiers draw their guns in a dark corridor, Vader reveals himself by lighting up his effervescent red blade. He then proceeds to fend off laser blasts while slaughtering every solider in his path, adroitly using the Force and his fiendish skill with a lightsaber to restore his status as the galaxy’s most merciless warrior. It’s a totally jaw-dropping scene.

The Rebels scramble to deliver the stolen plans and Vader almost gets his hands on them. But then we’re hit with another money shot: Princess Leia’s Blockade Runner undocking from the station to make a run for it, Vader watching them get away.

To bind this cinematic connective tissue, we’re shown the plans handed to none other than a digitally-recreated Princess Leia. The film then closes, the dots fully connected, and in your head you’re already lining up the opening shot of Episode IV with Vader in hot pursuit.

It’s a well-played and very satisfying ending.

stormtroopersRogue One is not without its issues. There’s a moment in the original Star Wars where Princess Leia explains to Han Solo that R2D2 is carrying the technical readouts of the Death Star. “I only hope that when the data is analyzed, a weakness can be found. It’s not over yet!” she says. Well, according to Rogue One, the Alliance is well aware of the Death Star’s secret flaw. Leia escaping with the plans and harboring doubts as to their potential usefulness is a clear contradiction.

To nitpick further, the title of the original Star Wars Episode IV – “A New Hope” – now refers to the stolen Death Star plans. But for years, the “new hope” was always Luke Skywalker, the farmboy-turned-rebel-pilot who would rise in the ways of the Force and tip the galactic conflict in the Alliance’s favor. It’s a significant repurposing of the title but nothing unforgivable. Like I said, nitpicking.

On the whole, the anthology approach that ties old and new characters into fresh storylines is an intriguing way to do Star Wars. There’s comfort in the familiar and Disney will mine our nostalgia like the Kyber Crystals on Jedha. But is this such a terrible thing? It wasn’t too long ago that someone went off to a galaxy far, far away and came back with Jar jar Binks, Midi-chlorians, and Darth Vader screaming “Nooooooooo!” into a black void. So maybe this delicate balance between the old and new is what we really need.

Indeed, Gareth Edwards has done a fine job of juggling the needs of this particular universe; he’s made an exceptional Star Wars film. If JJ Abrams reignited the franchise with The Force Awakens, Edwards’ Rogue One has taken a delightful step towards fully restoring it.