If there's one definitive theme in the now main Star Wars episodes, it's the battle between light and dark. Courtesy of John Knoll, ILMs very own Admiral Ackbar, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story gets to unshackle itself from the simpler themes and wear it's shades of grey more proudly than the uniform of any imperial officer. Taking place before Episode IV - A New Hope, Rogue One catches glimpses of the Rebellion's not so clean infancy and gets to play a little dirty with our expectations.
Unless you're a weird old hermit living out beyond the dune sea, you know the set up of Rogue One and the mission to steal the Death Star plans, thus setting in motion the events of the original Star Wars Trilogy. As George Lucas learned the hard way, messing with the formulaic universe of Star Wars can be punishable by internet force-choke. JJ Abrams was careful to tune the echos of previous episodes to bring something familiar and yet new to The Force Awakens. So while fans of the force were still looking for something fresh from Rogue One, if it goes too far to the Dark Side you'll have a legion of faithful troopers to answer to. Thankfully, Gareth Edwards, manages to bring both a different tone and story, while still keeping it's feet planted firmly in Tatooine.
Something old and something new seems to be the order of the day with Rogue One. The opening moments alone make sure everything feels familiar enough. The far-reaching vastness of space, then something crawls into frame and even little things like blue milk in plastic containers ensure you feel very much like you're in the right place. Yet there's something off. The family we watch to begin may be dressed in eastern, Kurosawa-inspired robes, but events play out very much like a western. Even the stalwarts of the opening crawl and nostalgic wipes are set aside to imbue this instalment with something curiously fresh. There's still enough references and winks throughout for any Jedi in the audience to feel very much at home, but care has been taken to allow Rogue One to stand alone and not need the saga to lean on.
Having your main characters thrown together with moral ambiguity means you can enter a world where you can be certain that Han shot first and even with a niggling underdevelopment the majority of new cahracters introduced are fun to watch - even if individual arcs don't always reach a satisfying finale they deserve. The inconsistent pacing to begin doesn't help to give all the characters the investment they deserve. The first act seems to prepare for the jump to light speed before you've had a chance to set the coordinates of the scene you've just arrived in, and while this isn't confusing, it leaves you a little disorientated. That being said, the grittier side of the Star Wars universe is full of the kind of subtle detail that will have you waiting for the blu-ray and it won't just be for the epic CGI explosions and dog fights. Each nook and cranny is filled with the "used future" that made the Millenium Falcon so charming.
There's Ton-ton belly full of things you'll enjoy in the newest edition to the Star Wars cannon: a new droid companion that's dryer than a rusted servo, a kung-fu inspired duo that bring both the spirituality of the force and satisfying action, not to mention an against-all-odds final act, but it's not quite all it wants to be. Oddly, Rogue One is a worthy addition, but it's not quite as moving in it's tragedy or as satisfying by credit call as it should be.
3* - The Thin Rebel Line