The Star Wars saga's first stand-alone film charts an exciting course with an entertaining ensemble and rousing nods to the original

By Kara Warner
December 13, 2016 12:01 PM
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Pick up PEOPLE’s special issue, Star Wars: The Secrets of Rogue One, on newsstands now — including a special Star Wars virtual-reality bonus with goggles included! And watch People Special: Star Wars Rogue One on the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the PEN app on Apple TV, Roku Players, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, iOS and Android devices.

The saga’s first stand-alone film establishes its independence early — in the second frame. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story begins with the familiar message, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” but instead of then continuing into the famous opening crawl, the picture fades to black and opens on our protagonist’s home planet. It’s a small switch that subtly suggests to the audience the Star Wars spirit is here, but with a twist.

Set shortly before the events of Episode IV— the original 1977 Star Wars — the most anticipated film of the holiday season follows a rebellious group of new heroes on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star. Determined heroine Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is first introduced as a child who watches the Empire’s evil minions kill her mother and capture her father, scientist and Death Star engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Fifteen years later, she becomes the leader of the mission to find those plans after being captured by the Rebellion and sent to find her childhood protector, rebel extremist Saw Gererra (Forest Whitaker), who reveals a cryptic hologram message from her estranged father with instructions on how to destroy said planet killer.

Credit: Jonathan Olley/© 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd

Jyn is, of course, not alone on this action-packed, planet-jumping quest. She is aided by resourceful, brash Rebel intelligence officer Capt. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), sarcastic, skilled droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and seasoned fighters Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) who selflessly agree to follow Jyn into a seemingly losing battle.

The stakes are high and the ragtag group of fighters take their work seriously. Jones’ Jyn is a formidable leading lady, cut from the same cloth as those who’ve come before her, Carrie Fisher’s feisty Princess Leia and Force Awakens standout Rey (Daisy Ridley). Luna’s Andor is a worthy and loyal foil for Jyn, further boosted by the warrior-like talents of Chirrut and Baze. Despite the strength of the ensemble, Tudyk’s scene-stealing K-2 is the clear MVP. He gets the best lines, the biggest laughs and provides much-needed moments of levity.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) delivers a weightier, darker Star Wars film than usual, with relevant and mature political themes. But he certainly hasn’t gone rogue: Like its predecessors, the film’s foundation is the age-old battle between good and evil, the Rebellion vs. the Empire, with dazzling visuals, stunning action sequences and so many crowd-pleasing cameos and easter eggs it will have Star Wars fans on their feet.

Though not meant to be an episode in the great intergalactic narrative of the series of trilogies, Edwards’ Rogue One is an enthralling companion piece that fully embodies the Star Wars spirit and delivers the rousing pleasures that always leave us wanting more. As Chirrut says in the film, “All is as the Force wills it.”