Rogue One: A Star Wars Story introduces itself like another very familiar Star Wars epic, with the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far away…” While the words are familiar, they’re in cerulean rather than the time-honored gold. This and the absence of an opening crawl serves to further distinguish this movie from all the others, fostering the sense that yes, this is part of canon but it’s not the story, it’s a story, the odd duck of a brother whose storyline takes place alongside the main event.
The marketing team takes pains to ready us for this fact. It’s all over the posters, a potential shield against the wrath of a billion fanboys who would be very unhappy to be so misled. Thanks to that and the opening scene, we already know it isn’t going to be like the stories we’ve become used to. Not that it matters. This may be a side story, but it’s a whopper of a side story, a gritty thriller closer in tone to Zero Dark Thirty rather than the usual space opera with all its hijinks and cute ball droids. It’s the Jason Bourne to the series’ Batman.
We go to see specific movies for specific reasons. My good friend and colleague Abby went for Riz Ahmed and his frenetic Imperial cargo pilot skills, I went for Donnie Yen who uses his skills and carriage as an accomplished martial artist to lethal effect. Neither of them disappoint. You know you should never mess with Donnie Yen even if he’s blind, seated and holding a seemingly harmless walking stick. What he misses, his trusty comrade mows down with a giant space gun that looks like a cannon. They form the bulk of a cadre that reads like a United Colors of Benetton ad, led by Felicity Jones who has the ability to look angelic even when she’s being a stubborn pain in the arse. She did it to Stephen Hawking. She’s doing it now. Diego Luna was never meant to win out against her, surly, brooding covert-op skills aside.
Mentions of the Force abound, but there are no tiresome montages of our heroes finding their inner strength by holding lightsabers and slashing around in a display of innate ability; the only one wielding a lightsaber in this movie is Darth Vader, and even that display is kept to a brief, albeit terrifying, minimum.
Thanks to the trailer, we know what this is going to be about – a ragtag band of rebels tries to get their hands on the plans for the Death Star, finding crucial information that might possibly expose its weakness. It’s surprising how much emotion this little side story evokes, considering most of us already know what happens next – the Rebels succeed, the Alliance receives the Death Star blueprints, Luke Skywalker finds the tiny flaw, the Death Star gets blown to kingdom come, yay, and scene. The movie is a slow burn that builds to a raging inferno that has you clutching the edges of your seat by the third act, urging all of our hardy band of heroes on, trying not to scream from all the tension, it’s that good.
Likely owing to the main cast being human, Rogue One brings reality home. There really was a war. Lives really were lost. It wasn’t just cute Ewoks in a jungle brandishing spears. While Luke Skywalker was doing a training montage in the forests of Endor with Yoda as a backpack, real people were out there working for the Alliance, fighting to get information, grasping for anything that could help bring the Empire down. It’s their story and it shows the actual cost of the fight for freedom. The little people are heroes too. They matter. Their story matters. It matters just as much as the saga of the Skywalkers.