It's not just that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is my favorite Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back; it's how damned easy it was for me to come that conclusion. Like, not a fraction of a second of hesitation. For those of you who just wanted the opinion & would prefer to hang back from the actual review (which will, for the record, have its share of spoilers, including the film's very last shot) until later, now you know.

The first in an open-ended series of "Star Wars Stories", i.e. "random one-off genre exercises set in the Star Wars universe that allow Disney to exploit the brand name annually rather than wait two whole years, I mean, for God's sake, we're capitalists over here", Rogue One is a thing that has customarily not gone well for Star Wars in the past: a prequel. But for the first time in in four tries (six if you count the made-for-TV Ewok movies from the 1980s, seven if you count the 2008 Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and a great many if you count the Clone Wars and Rebels TV cartoon series, but I don't know that you'd necessarily want to count any of those things), it is a prequel that actually does what a prequel is in theory supposed to do, which is to make the original thing seem even better by adding depth to the backstory. The film ends about a half an hour or so before the original Star Wars begins, having spent two hours and fourteen minutes packing meat onto the skeleton of two lines from the title crawl first presented in 1977: "Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star".

So, Rogue One does indeed involve Rebel spaceships winning their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. It's not, for the most part, a film that traffics in surprise, except in the smallest sort of ways (like, the Death Star can also target individual cities, it turns out), and the easiest complaint about every prequel ever made in any narrative medium applies: since we know where this is going before it ever starts, it doesn't "matter". Add to that how very transparently this is a cash grab (a characteristic it shares with every single Star Wars movie or television production made since 1978, so let's not get too shirty about it; but still, a Star Wars theatrical feature released less than 365 days after the last one definitely has the tang of grotesque corporate greed about it), and it's easy to suppose that this is crass and horrible and utterly unworthy of anyone's time.

Here's the thing about "not mattering" - that's kind of the point. We know that the Rebels will succeed in getting the Death Star plans, and in broad terms, we know that it's not very likely that any of the particular Rebels who do so will survive, or we'd have likely heard something about them. We know who ends up with those plans, and we might assume that we'd probably see her, if only the actress who played that character wasn't 39 years older, and there's certainly nothing we can do these days to make soulless CGI zombies who look like actors from 1977 (I tease CGI Leia - she is by far the less-objectionable of the two eldritch CGI abominations in the cast). We know lots of stuff that the characters don't, assuming we've seen Star Wars, and oh my Lord, Rogue One assumes that we've seen Star Wars enough to have it pretty close to memorised (it also assumes, rather more dubiously, that we not only have seen Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, we've seen it recently enough and had strong enough positive feelings towards it that we'll remember that Jimmy Smits played Leia's adopted dad in it for like thirty seconds). That doesn't make us smarter than the film, per se; it makes us exactly as smart as the film, which is the most fatalistic thing Star Wars has ever done. It is a film that feels less "predictable" than "inevitable"; there is a sense of glowering doom, of some horrible fate hovering right over the characters (literally, in the sequences where the Death Star goes on its city-destroying rampages). They say "it's the first Star Wars film that's about war, in the stars", and that's so not true at all - every last one of the films has had a showstopping combat scene, though they're among the least-interesting parts of both The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: The Force Awakens - but it is the first Star Wars film where war feels like it has pervaded everything and made it horrible and beastly. And that's true even when the script is collapsing all around, meaning that no matter how terrible it gets as a piece of storytelling - quite bad, at different points in the first 40 minutes - it remains a hell of a good atmosphere piece.

Good atmosphere, after all, is probably the thing director Gareth Edwards does best, and while we'll never know what was changed during the infamous reshoots in the early part of 2016, the fingerprints of the man who made the 2014 Godzilla are all over Rogue One. Both are marked by a profound gloominess, and both evoke a staggering sense of enormous grandeur: in a way that never happened in Star Wars or Return of the Jedi, the Death Star feels huge beyond the possibility of the human being to comprehend it, whether it's a shot of its concave laser array being slowly pressed into place while giant starships flutter around like starlings, or the image of it rising in the daytime sky. Ruined statues of unknown ancientness dwarf unspeakably vast deserts. A tower rises above a bucolic water planet. It is maybe the vastest Star Wars; nor has any film since the first one made the galaxy feel so much frightfully larger than the people inhabiting it (even Empire, for all that it's my favorite, is guilty of making it feel like the whole universe could be traversed in a few hours, max).

Really, everything about the tone and style are superb. It is a movie full of places that feel like places, not the themed lands in a Mario game. The industrial space where we first meet Diego Luna's morally grey Rebel soldier Cassian Andor (morally grey! in Star Wars! and I might also add that "Cassian Andor" is a strong competitor for Best Star Wars Name Ever), however briefly spotted, is a thrillingly tangible space, and it's probably the first wholly persuasive new Star Wars location since Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace first left Naboo. The de rigueur desert city manages to suggest Star Wars's Mos Eisley only insofar as they feel like they come out of the same pan-galactic culture, while feeling like a different place built by different people for a different purpose. In fact, the movie is particularly excellent at evoking that feeling: perhaps the best thing about it is that it feels like a movie made by people who'd seen Star Wars and none of the other movies, and set about the task of building out the world in the direction of other, more dour '70s sci fi.

What I have described so far isn't just the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back - it's the best Star Wars movie, period. And I'll stand by the claim that the strongest elements of Rogue One, including its enormous sense of scale, its filthy, lived-in production design (this is far and away the dirtiest Star Wars film since 1977), its sense of gravity in the face of war, and the like, are the equal to anything in this franchise, if not superior. Oh, and the action! The action! The film is stuffed with action setpieces, and none them are "bad", while the very best - such as the one that introduces Donnie Yen's Force-sensitive fighter Chirrut Îmwe, or the fucking breathtaking closing 30-minute sequence involving one of the best space battles in the history of sci-fi movies, an excellently well-paced ground battle, and the thriller-style attempt to grab the Death Star plans from a giant tube pointing at the abyss - are the absolute pinnacle of 2016 popcorn cinema. If Rogue One was only its concluding hour, it would be the second-best blockbuster-type movie of the decade, behind only the unbeatable Mad Max: Fury Road.

But it is not only its concluding hour, and it's not only its strongest elements. And two of the elements that aren't so strong are fairly prominent: the script and the characters. As far as the script goes, the problem is almost entirely in the exposition. Rogue One is deeply ambivalent about what audience it wants: people who know Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, and Revenge of the Sith by heart, or people who just wandered into the theater for no reason. The result is a movie that, after its beautifully-shot and tense opening (the great Greig Fraser served as cinematographer, but he gets only a handful of moments to show off; after the grey-and-green opening, it's only the rainy night scene on whichever the hell planet it is, where they went for whatever hell reason that really stands out as particularly well-shot), goes to hell for a solid 30 minutes or more, as it shuffles around locations, characters, plot points, and exposition in a slurry that makes no particular sense, and feels like it either needed to be streamlined, or significantly expanded. It is "this happened and this happened and this happened" storytelling of the worst set. There are great moments individually studded into this: the whole sequence on the desert world Jedha is everything I want space opera to be. But the whole of it is a mess.

The characters, meanwhile, they just suck. Maybe the one exception is the sarcastic droid K-2SO, voiced and motion-captured by Alan Tudyk, who's only the sharp-tongued comic relief, anyway. Some of the characters are redeemed by strong performances: the bland Imperial functionary Krennic would be an awfully dreary villain if it wasn't for Ben Mendelsohn coming along to play him as a mildewy careerist bureaucrat, terrified of getting people in power mad at him and taking out his frustrations on the people below him. Twitchy ex-Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook wouldn't even register as an onscreen figure if it wasn't for Riz Ahmed's best-in-show performance as a bundle of nerves and moral panic. But the leads are both terrible: Cassian deserves a more robust, darker performance than Luna gives him, and the film's actual protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is such a misfire that it took me 1800 words just to acknowledge that she exists. The character as conceived is satisfactory enough: a prickly misanthrope who resigns herself to doing right because somebody damn well has to, though the reshoots (allegedly) sanded off some of her edges. The character as written is a bundle of clichΓ©s, but so have been a great many Star Wars characters. The character as played is a wet twig: I'm still waiting for the Felicity Jones performance where she does fucking anything, and it looks like I shall have to continue to wait: this is all sullen-faced pouts and flat line readings and no sense that the character feels a solitary goddamn thing. By the time it ends, Rogue One has become mostly an ensemble piece, and people like Yen, Ahmed, and Jiang Wen are good enough to make it work. Even Tudyk, who's just playing the embodiment of sarcasm. But when it's mostly just the Jyn Show, it's some pretty rough going.

There are other flaws along the way: it's besotted with fannish cameos and in-jokes, some of which work (the stormtroopers who are shooting the shit about some piece of tech, a call-back to a brief scene in Star Wars, are particularly appreciated & add much texture to the film's world for such a small gesture), some of which are all-time great (Darth Vader's climactic scene, right out of a horror movie, is hands-down the most visually exciting presentation of the character ever). But more of them are bad and annoying (the walrus man and "I have the death sentence on twelve systems" guy didn't belong her and it's irritating that they show up), or completely repulsive (Darth Vader's first scene, also right out of a horror movie - specifically one of the latter Nightmare on Elm Street - "don't choke on your ambitions" my ass). Michael Giacchino's music mostly works as a John Williams pastiche, but it's thoroughly unmemorable, blowing past The Force Awakens (which at least had Rey's theme) to set up shop as the weakest Star Wars score ever. And I'm maybe not even excluding the Ewok movies from that calculation.

And there is, of course, a special place in hell for all the people who thought they could put over that act of digital grave-robbing and bring Peter Cushing back to a shockingly unpersuasive simulation of life. As a character in the story, Tarkin is used to exquisite effect - he's the ice-cold Nazi monster to Mendelsohn's banally evil German functionary - but the waxen stiffness of the animation (I think he's probably tolerable in stills, when you can't see how his face just. Won't. Move) ruins it completely.

The point being, when Rogue One is good, it is VERY good. When it is bad, it is... well not prequel trilogy-bad, at least. And it has the common decency to end on its best stuff, so it leaves you walking out with a jazzed-up feeling of enthusiasm, and a heightened appreciation for the stakes of the original Star Wars (this film dignifies the Rebellion by letting it feel like a genuinely desperate rag-tag band, and not just some folks we see one time in a conference room). It's pretty great, and pretty rare, for a prequel to retroactively add depth to the film it precedes, but damn me if that's not what happened here. The film's sins exist, and they are bad sins, but frankly they're so effortlessly wiped out by all the things that it does well, and all the new things it adds to the Star Wars universe, that I barely even cared about them when they were in the act of bothering me.

Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Star Wars Holiday Special (Binder, 1978)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
The Ewok Adventure (Korty, 1984)
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (Wheat & Wheat, 1985)
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999)
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (Lucas, 2002)
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Filoni, 2008)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams, 2019)