On Wednesday, May 25th, 1977, a golden scroll slipped through a starfield and told us something that would change cinema forever.  There was a Rebellion, brave and tired, who had won their first victory against the villainously vast Empire.  Rebel spies had obtained the plans to destroy a dreaded superweapon, the Death Star, and had managed to transmit the contraband to a princess named Leia.  And away we went.

40 years later, that introduction now provides the outline for Gareth Edward’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the gripping first entry in a series of anthology tales set on the edges of George Lucas’ universe. It fleshes out the spaces of those opening crawl’s margins, widening the franchise’s stylistic horizons while exploring the events which led up to perhaps the most influential film of our time.  It’s like someone wrote a prelude to Homer’s Odyssey, but punchier.

Here is a refreshingly unpretentious war film, briskly told and peppered with some wonderfully cinematic moments.  You can leap into this without knowing your R2-D2’s from a recycling bin and still have a hugely satisfying night at the movies. That’s thanks to director Edwards, who was catapulted into the blockbusting big leagues by 2008’s Monsters, a scrappy sci-fi which used a toxic landscape of octopod invaders as a backdrop to a genuinely touching love story.  Like his debut, Rogue One effortlessly weaves spectacle with naturalistic performances you wouldn’t necessarily expect of a film printed on so many T-shirts.

Our lead is Jyn Erso, a petty criminal played with steely verve by Felicity Jones.  Her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) designed the Death Star, and the Rebellion believes she may possess the connections necessary to track him down.  They assign her into the care of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a stern scout who has lost so much in the struggle against the Empire that he will give almost anything to obliterate it.   Their relationship provides the film’s centre, their gently simmering chemistry and the almost audible pop as these two hardened victims gradually open to each other perfectly performed by Jones and Luna.   It’s not a romance, but a partnership of battle. 

Like all men-on-a mission-films from Seven Samurai to Ocean’s 11, a roster of charming freedom fighters is slowly assembled.  There is Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior-monk who meditates on the Force; his close associate, Baze (Jiang Wen), a rebel-cum-mercenary with inhumanly good aim; and Bhodi (Riz Ahmed), an ex-imperial pilot who defected when he realized the Empire’s genocidal intentions.   Most memorable of all is K-2SO, a lanky-limbed droid played by Alan Tudyk via bleeding edge motion capture.  His sparky sense of comic timing, perhaps a result of the much reported reshoots, cuts as sharply as blaster fire.

However, the inspired wizardry which transformed a six-foot Texan into a towering robot will likely not be the binding point of discussion when you leave the cinema. I won’t dare reveal what it is. You will know it when it happens. Some will be staggered, but I found it only jarring, not only due to ethical dilemmas it presents, but because Rogue One is at its most compelling when digging into matters of the flesh and blood.  

Take the murky handheld photography by Greig Fraser, who shoots every interplanetary warzone with the same chest-tightening immediacy he bought to the storming of Bin Laden’s compound in Kathryn Bigelow’s 2013 thriller Zero Dark Thirty, another nervy woman-led thriller with which Rogue One shares some DNA.  Or Doug Chaing’s and Neil Lamont’s production design, all oil-stained cheeks and crumpled leather, showing you the grit between the Rebellion’s fingers as much as the no-nonsense screenplay tallies the blood on their hands.  “We’ve all done terrible things in name of a rebellion”, one character confesses.

Such a grimy aesthetic confirms that these tales are charting a different territory to their brighter cousins. Unlike past instalments, the ‘Wars’ part of the saga’s identity is vividly underlined.  Key locations include a landlocked desert city and a bombed-out palm tree dotted beach that consciously riffs on the iconic ‘Rise of the Valkyries” sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, a Wagnerian Vietnam war epic Edwards notably included in his list of the greatest films of all time for a 2012 Sight & Sound poll. A key moment where Jyn rescues a lone child from crossfire has a peculiar resonance for a multi-quadrant space opera.

Ben Mendelsohn is expectedly terrific as Orson Krennic, a slithering diplomat so calculating you half-expect a forked tongue to dart out his lips mid condescending address.  And then there’s Vader, the original dark lord himself. The asthmatic enforcer probably only commands around 6 minutes of screen time, but each entrance is breath-catchingly ominous, like a gush of black smoke into a cramped room.  His counsel with Krennic practically glowers with some of the most effective visual direction of any film this year. 

It certainly is not without flaws. The first half is a little foggy, as if the storytellers aren’t quite certain of their direction, the dialogue occasionally as ropey as old rigging, and though the supporting characters all sport fascinating enough tics to spin a good expanded universe novel from, few are dramatically defined enough to truly move us.   

But what ultimately redeems the film, and, I think, confirms Edwards as one of our premiere screen artists, is that Rogue One caresses as much poetry from the Death Star imposing a brief eclipse as it orbits around a sun as the cast’s struggle to maintain their faith despite overwhelming odds.  As Jyn reminds her jaded leaders, “Rebellions are built on hope”, and it’s this reverence for the abstract that reminds you there is nothing quite like Star Wars, a film series which has always extolled eastern ideals while serving a western value system.  

Like their heroes, Edwards and Co have established a foundation which ignites your optimism for the future.
  You feel there’s no limit to what LucasFilm can splash on this canvas.   In an age of cardboard-cut out sequels, here is a gift for all of us.