Star Wars is back for the second time in as many years, reinforcing Disney's commitment to the annual (or thereabouts) roll-out of movies set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Rogue One takes a different approach to The Force Awakens in that they've dropped some of the iconic trimmings, differentiating it to the point where you know from the start that it's a spin-off.
The opening is something of a roller-coaster, dropping you in different locations around the galaxy in quick succession, but it doesn't take long before it settles into a steadier rhythm, where the opening strands are woven into the through-line that holds it all together. By the end the events portrayed therein feel like a snug fit into the wider story, and even though you saw it all coming, it's hard to not to feel an appreciative afterglow when the credits roll, largely because you know where it's going next.
Leading lady Jyn Erso (played by Felicty Jones) takes a while to warm up, and before the end we can't help but think that she delivers one too many rousing speeches. We're going to level the blame on the script writers for that one, because like the rest of the headline cast, she delivers a largely assured performance. Standout performances include a short but effective appearance by freedom fighting Saw Gerrera (the always dependable Forest Whitaker), Erso's opposite number Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and charismatic companions Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).
A shout out also needs to go to Peter Cushing, who delivers an interesting performance as Grand Moff Tarkin. Impressively enough, he does so from the grave, this thanks to a CGI-infused performance that has him joining in the action ahead of the events of A New Hope. The CGI is largely impressive, and director Gareth Edwards and his technical crew do a decent enough job all things considered, but it's not flawless, and some will find the effect a little unnerving. They pull the same trick elsewhere in the movie with another character, although we'll not spoil that here.
The plot itself centres around the Rebellion's efforts to undermine the Empire, and charts the story of how they managed to get hold of the Death Star plans that proved so pivotal in the next film in the series (sequentially, not chronologically). Here the Rebellion are portrayed with more grit than ever before, and there are parallels to be drawn between their actions and mentality, and those of real-world freedom fighters (some might call them terrorists, it all depends on where you stand). This is not the same cutesy action that we've seen before in the existing trilogies, rather we're confronted with death and sacrifice at every turn. In this sense, it feels more mature than its predecessors, relying less on established tropes to hit home its point.
Ultimately Rogue One is very good Star Wars film, and it's at a similar level to the quality of The Force Awakens. It fits perfectly into the series, and sets up the events in A New Hope brilliantly, but it can also be enjoyed on its own without having seen any of the other movies (but let's face it, we're not talking about many people these days, are we). It's not perfect by any means, but if Disney can keep up this level of quality with the series moving forward, we expect there's going to be a lot of happy Star Wars fans out there for a long time to come.