>>> Rogue One is the only Star Wars prequel that matters

And it ends on a moment that’s as transcendent as anything in 40 years of the franchise

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (Gareth Edwards). 133 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (December 16). See listings. Rating: NNNN

Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One is not just the best Star Wars prequel, it’s the only one we need.

Set immediately before the events of George Lucas’s landmark 1977 blockbuster, it’s an adventure story about the team of misfits and rebels (and one reprogrammed Imperial droid) who stole the plans for the Death Star from the evil Galactic Empire and allowed the Rebellion – as represented by some farm boy named Luke – to take advantage of its fatal design flaw.

The nature of that flaw is one of several really clever revelations sprinkled throughout Rogue One that connect this stand-alone story to the larger narrative. Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy – working from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and of course from the road map laid out by Lucas four decades earlier – have created a movie that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but has no time to worry about the larger stakes of bringing balance to the Force.

It’s like someone’s dropped The Dirty Dozen into the master narrative. These characters don’t have a cosmic destiny, just a passing connection to the story. They’re a bunch of losers who will fulfill their mission or die trying, and their very disposability means all bets are off: we know the plans will somehow succeed – c’mon, everyone knows how Star Wars ends – but we haven’t the faintest idea how.

And that’s what makes Rogue One different. Except for the obligatory scenes among those nasty Imperials – represented primarily by Ben Mendelsohn’s sneering Commander Krennic – there’s a pronounced lack of reverence for the material in the script and the performances. Lucas’s prequels groaned under the weight of their own self-seriousness, but this one is swift and urgent Edwards makes us believe the fate of the galaxy hangs on these scruffy-looking nerf herders.

The stakes feel pretty personal, though Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso, recruited to make a connection between the Rebellion and a hostile extremist (Forest Whitaker), is more interested in finding her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist conscripted by Krennic decades earlier to build his planet-killing superweapon. Alliance operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is a rebel running on fumes, having long lost hope of bringing the Empire down.

Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is an Imperial pilot working for the good guys Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) are older warriors swept up in the cause along with the obligatory droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, in motion capture).

Stock characters, maybe, but all of them have their moments – and all of them play a crucial part in the mission. That’s the remarkable thing about Rogue One. It shows us exactly how much is going on behind the scenes of every Star Wars movie, and it does so with surprising elegance.

And when you realize where it’s all been heading – ending on a moment that’s as transcendent as anything in 40 years of the franchise – you’ll be so, so happy.

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