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Forget The Force Awakens, Rogue One is the Star Wars Movie You've Been Waiting For

Finally, this is the Star Wars movie I have been waiting for since The Empire Strikes Back.

Dark and dramatic, taunt and intense, and rife with sequences of mind-blowing, you-are-right-there battle sequences, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is an exceptional film, a stellar entry in the enduring franchise and proof positive that Star Wars can thrive without Luke, Leia, Han or Chewie.

Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have delivered the darkest chapter ever in Disney’s family-friendly galaxy far, far away – and it works better than likely anyone imagined.

If you thought Han Solo being frozen in carbonite was rough, just wait. Rogue One earns its emotional resonance honestly. It develops its characters slowly, allowing the connection between rebel alliance fighters and the audience to form organically, leading to a much more satisfying conclusion than even The Force Awakens, which felt awkward in its abrupt face-off and patriarchal reveal between Han and Kylo Ren.

And that’s the best thing about Rogue One – nothing feels forced.

After spending a weekend watching the three prequels, Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, it’s refreshing and rejuvenating to sit in a dark theater, imagining it to be the dark of space, and to become wholly absorbed in a cinematic struggle between a handful of good guys (and one truly mesmerizing girl) and the welcome return of several evil Galactic Empire foes.

There’s no unnecessary array of cute aliens designed to become popular children’s toys. There’s no silly gravity-defying, parkour-infused light saber battles between Christopher Lee and Yoda. And there’s no interminable 16-plus-minute pod race.

Edwards, Weitz and Gilroy focus on what matters most – characters that you rally behind, villains that aren’t one-dimensional or simply look cool and new creatures that aren’t Jabba the Hut or droids that aren’t just recalibrations of R2D2 or C-3PO.

In fact, the only new droid, K-2SO, as voiced by Alan Tudyk, is a standout addition and a sure-to-be fan favorite, providing both welcome comedic relief and displaying some serious fighting skills.

The director and writers don’t forsake nostalgia entirely. They wisely sprinkle in a healthy dollop of some of the coolest, iconic elements from the original trilogy.

Case in point, the towering AT-AT Walkers (All Terrain Armored Transport), which appeared briefly in The Empire Strikes Back, but play a pivotal role in the climactic battle at the heart of Rogue One.

Edwards channels Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy to literally thrust viewers onto the battlefield, dashing between the gigantic steel feet of the AT-AT’s as they advance.

And, as evidenced by the trailers, Rogue One also deftly utilizes movie magic to resurrect Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, but that’s not the only surprise. There’s one other familiar face from Episode IV – A New Hope, whom I won’t spoil here, who makes a brief but satisfying appearance.

Even Darth Vadar returns, albeit briefly, but significantly, if only to reclaim his rightful place as the most intimidating big bad ever in the entire Star Wars universe.

Rogue One wouldn’t work without a solid story, particularly since fans already know what will immediately follow as far as the events of the established film canon. And that is truly what elevates Rogue One above both The Force Awakens and the subpar prequel trilogy.

There’s more than enough story to be told here, and it is a thrilling mashup of clever heist movie and gritty, brutal wartime epic.

Rogue One is all about Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, once again proving the women of Star Wars kick as much, if not more, ass than the guys), whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) designed the original Death Star. Jyn is recruited by the Alliance to find her father after defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is tasked by Galen with delivering a holographic SOS (sound familiar?).

There are no meet-cute moments in Rogue One.

Jyn is unceremoniously teamed up with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, who is gruff and tough enough to make viewers forget about Luke or Han), a Rebellion fighter who isn’t afraid to kill to defeat the Galactic Empire. Along the way, they recruit Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, in a breakout performance for the Hong Kong superstar) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who help re-introduce the Force in a way that’s both believable and inspiring.

You believe in this ragtag band – the Fantastic Five – because they fully inhabit their roles without overplaying the importance of their mission. They all know what they’re up against in trying to steal the schematics of the Death Star from an Imperial Forces stronghold. Forget DC Comics from this summer – these guys are the Suicide Squad you care about.

Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie in 32 years. It’s a brave departure from the traditional storytelling that has dominated the majority of films thus far. There definitely won’t be a sequel or a prequel, and that’s OK.

And it’s the most sobering blockbuster in recent memory – seriously, I cannot stress enough that this movie is decidedly downbeat at its core, but in a way that doesn’t undermine its enjoyment.

More than anything, Rogue One is a testament to the staying power of the franchise, and the creative roadmap that hopefully will continue to mine similar one-off stories for years to come.

Don’t even bother waiting for the crowds to die down. You’re going to want to be standing in line come tonight and likely again over the weekend for a repeat viewing.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 and runs 133 minutes. It opened Thursday, December 15.

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