'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' worth seeing

In Rogue One, Darth Vader's back, and so is the Death Star. Which heroes will make it out alive?

In Rogue One, Darth Vader's back, and so is the Death Star. Which heroes will make it out alive? Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

After an especially bad year at the multiplex — and an even worse one in the real world — the sentiment among Star Wars fans is clear.

"Help us, Rogue One. You're our only hope."

And "hope" is very much the operative word here, not least because this standalone chapter in the enduring space-opera sets up the events of the franchise's first installment, 1977's A New Hope. Gareth Edwards' film explicitly states that rebellion is built on that most resilient of concepts. It also reminds us, sometimes with genuine sorrow, that every happy ending is preceded by setbacks and disappointments — some more grim than others.

This is perhaps the most melancholy Star Wars saga to date, and certainly the most beautifully shot; the opening sequence alone, all volcanic black and Imperial white, is more visually arresting than anything Lucas, Abrams, et al. have treated us to thus far. It finds our soon-to-be heroine during her last few moments of childhood bliss, just before a cloaked official from the Empire enlists her father to help engineer a certain planet-destroying weapon we've seen before.

The rest of the movie follows her some 15 years later, when the adult Jyn Erso (now played by Felicity Jones) reluctantly joins a cause of her own: the Rebel Alliance, whose continued existence depends on finding her estranged father (an ever-excellent Mads Mikkelsen) and learning the Death Star's fatal flaw.

Strained dynamics between parents and children are the defining through-line of Star Wars, a legacy Rogue One touches on in an especially poignant, downcast manner.

The series has accrued enough history and goodwill that, by virtue of merely appearing in its singular milieu, brand-new characters instantly feel familiar, even iconic. Among the highlights of this latest crew, which is even more motley than most in this fictional galaxy populated by underdogs and antiheroes, are Forest Whitaker as an eccentric extremist driven loopy by years of resisting the Empire, Ben Mendelsohn as the sharply dressed embodiment of the banality of evil, and the voice of Alan Tudyk as a sardonic droid whose musings range from petty to menacing.

It's Donnie Yen as a blind Force adherent named Chirrut Îmwe who proves most endearing, though, adding a spiritual dimension to our understanding of the unseen power that courses through and binds everyone in this world. "I'm one with the Force and the Force is with me" is his oft-repeated mantra, and his deeply held beliefs inspire the film's most impressive action sequences — as well as its most moving scene.

Edwards' most recent outing was the underrated Godzilla of a few years ago, which likewise balanced moments of awe-inducing scale with a studied eye for small aesthetic details. An early test of the Death Star results in a cosmic cloud of death and destruction that almost renders its creator (Mendelsohn) speechless — he calls its beautiful.

Unburdened by the constraints that come with belonging to a trilogy, Rogue One is free to set its own course and put its characters in peril; unlike most other entries, we can't be certain that all will live to see another sequel.

Even though the success of their overarching mission is never in question, their individual fates are. So while Rogue One isn't as grand or consequential as The Force Awakens, it finds space in the margins to leave a mark all its own. The likes of Jyn Erso and Chirrut Îmwe may be footnotes in a galaxy that counts Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker among its best-known inhabitants, but that galaxy now feels richer for having told their story.