Given that today Star Wars fans all over the world are celebrating the release of the eighth film in this series, it is very tempting to immediately start comparing it to the previous films. But even taking consideration that each previous movie has had their special moment in the pop culture universe, the release of Rogue One and the many surprises it carries feels like something truly special.
It is quite a feat for director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and his production crew to deliver a movie that has that old familiar magic but has a cinematic identity all of its own. And the surprises I referred to earlier have nothing to do with appearances from characters from the previous (which there are) and the wonderful way the movie connects to the narrative of what we have seen before in a galaxy far, far away. The truly unexpected surprise of Rogue One, which opens nationwide today, is how it manages to honor what came before by making it new and exciting again and on a scale that is truly impressive both in in it's dramatic depth and it's visual dazzle.
Free of having to be another episode in the Skywalker family saga, which on it's worst incarnations have registered like an intergalactic soap opera, Edwards and his wonderful team of collaborators are free to make this Star Wars story a compelling war movie. When you take the tropes of that particular genre and place them smack in the middle of all the visual and creative potential that are present within the universe that George Lucas created, the results are as thrilling as any of the best moments from all the previous films. Not being another episode or part of a particular trilogy also broadens this film's appeal. A "regular" movie goer doesn't need to know all the details to enjoy the high stakes of a group of people who decide to risk everything to fight an oppressive. That said, those in the audience who are able to catch every single reference and every single way this particular cinematic universe has been expanded will be standing up and cheering by the end.
The other great asset of the story is how the new characters are developed in a more urgent and effective way. Finn, Rey and Poe Dameron are all still waiting to transcend their archetypes. That is not an option for the new characters in this story, which means that screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy had to manage to give them each a very satisfying arc. The main one being the story of Jynn Erso, played with great intensity by Felicity Jones.
The most exciting parts of this movie are the sequences that showcase the violent clash between the Rebellion and the Empire, but for Erso this is a personal conflict. The Empire's ambition to rule the family literally leaves her without parents for most of her childhood which leads to a dangerous rebellious streak when we meet her again as a young woman. The Rebellion tries to channel said streak with just a dash of emotional blackmail. They offer Jynn the opportunity to reunite with her father (Mads Mikkelsen), but this family reunion entails risking her life to get the plans to the Death Star, the weapon of mass destruction that the Empire is just begging to test.
While the end results of said mission are obvious, the journey is worth the price of admission. Gareth Edward's direction and the richness of these characters make the Star Wars universe feel truly alive again and not just the backdrop to a dazzling special effect. There are many moments of visual panache that are breathtaking, but the best moments of the film filter the flawed humanity of our new "heroes". Many of those moments belong to Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, an imperial droid with no social graces and a special way of destroying the dramatic and comedic subtext of each scene, and Donnie Yen who plays a blind man with a special connection to the Force and the disappearance of the Jedi.
Even so, for me one of the most fascinating characters is Cassian Ardor, played by Diego Luna. His storyline illustrates perfectly how war places a hero in a position of not always being heroic. There is a moment in the beginning of the film that will probably send George Lucas screaming towards the exit. Mr. Lucas clearly likes his conflict in shades of black and white, as the whole Who Shot First? Greedo and Han Solo debacle can illustrate. But this film places this character and others in very interesting grey areas that gives the rebel's plight a clear dramatic pulse.
This particular aspect of the film, the tone and the dramatic context in which the story is placed, is what brings the comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back. While the fun and the adventure of A New Hope and The Force Awakens is what makes us love this universe, Episode V was the one that gave this galaxy some weight and depth. Rogue One is the first movie since Empire Strikes Back to truly embody those qualities from beginning to end. As happy as that will make anyone who's a fan, it must be stated that this film wasn't designed to be an echo of any of the previous Star Wars films. The fact that it feels different makes it more exciting, but the fact that it achieves the dramatic richness of Empire Strikes Back with all levels of nostalgia under control is quite a feat.
Speaking of nostalgia, what of Darth Vader?, you ask. No worries, you'll get no spoilers from me except to say that his role in this film thrillingly restores his place as one of the best antagonist in cinema history and all traumas of his last appearance in Revenge of the Sith (NOOOOOOOO!) will be erased. So in case you haven't caught my drift, go to the theater and go now. Rogue One is a fantastic film that takes the basic concept of Star Wars to a greater cinematic level of entertainment.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arrives in theaters December 16, 2016.