What is a Star Wars movie? The first Star Wars is a pastiche that samples freely from across cinema history, but in the nearly four decades since, Star Wars movies have increasingly become pastiches of themselves. Until Rogue One, which opens Thursday night as the first in a series of new “anthology films,” each successive episode, whether sequel or prequel, has faithfully repeated the same rituals. There’s the prefatory incantation (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…. ”); the blaring brass of a John Williams score; the expository opening crawl; the recitation of the “bad feeling about this”; and, finally, a climactic confrontation with a black-caped Sith, usually in the form of a lightsaber battle. At least three characters must appear in each film: C-3PO, R2-D2, and—one way or another—Darth Vader. And aside from the Joseph Campbell–prescribed death of a mentor, all the principal heroes must survive. This formula was established by the original, and it’s been frozen in carbonite ever since.
But Rogue One signals its intention to stretch the Star Wars template from its opening shot, which forgoes the brass burst and the opening crawl for a jarring strike on the strings and an immediate leap into the action. This opening to a new “Star Wars story” (as the subtitle puts it) may be greeted by some as heretical, but it makes sense. After all, the plot of the midquel, which takes place between the end of the prequels and the beginning of the original Star Wars, is essentially the events summarized by the very first Star Wars crawl:
It is a period of civil war. 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, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
I guess in 1977 they didn’t have spoiler alerts? Which is not to say that Rogue One isn’t full of surprises. But the surprises have less to do with the ultimate outcome than with which rules the movie decides to break.
The opening scene finds our hero, Jyn Erso, living … a humble life as a farmer on a sandy planet. (OK, there is one twist: The sand is black.) Her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), helped design the Death Star but deserted before its completion. Soon the Empire, in the form of its head of weapons development (Ben Mendelsohn, who brings an occasional spritz of smirking understatement to this otherwise cartoonish villain), tracks them down. The movie quickly zips forward to show a grown-up Jyn recruited to join the Rebel Alliance. And in a sharp bit of casting, she’s now played by The Theory of Everything’s Felicity Jones, who subtly conveys the fire in Jyn’s eyes that the Empire has never quite extinguished. Instead, Jyn inspires others by wearing her passion—and even her occasional tears—as a strength.
From this point on, Rogue One is, essentially, a heist movie about stealing the plans for the Death Star, and like every good heist movie, it must assemble a motley crew of specialists. The first to join is the hardened rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his logorrheic droid K-2SO (voiced and played in motion capture by Alan Tudyk), who nearly steals the movie with his winning combination of Wookiee-level strength and C-3PO–level social graces. Soon, these three are saved by the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, played by Hong Kong star Donnie Yen, who gives the Star Wars universe a welcome infusion of martial arts (a good idea that the prequels too quickly discarded with the two halves of Darth Maul) and this movie its Yodalike spiritual center. And trailing behind the blind seer is his heavily armed partner, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), whose intimate relationship with Îmwe should produce no shortage of fan fiction. Last, and sadly least, is Bodhi Rook, a pilot and another deserter from the Empire played by an underused Riz Ahmed (The Night Of).
Along the way, this band of mostly brothers (who are, at least, not mostly white) meets a cast of characters new and—more often than you might expect—old. Looming largest is, of course, Darth Vader, voiced once again by James Earl Jones—though Jones may regret returning after being given his worst line in Star Wars history, a Mr. Freeze–level pun. (Note to future screenwriters: Darth Vader should not make puns.) Indeed, some of these characters might have been best left in the trash compactor of history. Strangest of all is the appearance, already revealed in the teasers, of a revived Grand Moff Tarkin—played, thanks to CGI trickery and stitched-together old footage, by Peter Cushing, who is 22 years deceased. Many of John Williams’ most famous themes are reprised, too, but composer Michael Giacchino—perhaps due to the fact that he was given only four and a half weeks to write his score—doesn’t quite manage to deliver a memorable new theme. (A tall order, but one Williams managed to fill with “Rey’s Theme” in The Force Awakens.)
Director Gareth Edwards’ previous two feature credits were both monster movies, and his greatest skill is with scale. In Rogue One, he shows massive events from eye level, leading to the unforgettable image of a blast wave that peels up the surface of a planet as it approaches, sending the world’s crust toward the viewer like a tsunami of rock. In another sequence, he sends Star Destroyers toppling into each other like dominos.
Some are already seeing those toppling Star Destroyers as representing something even larger: a political message for the age of Trump. But reading coherent political allegory into Star Wars movies has always been a fool’s errand. (Never forget that the original Star Wars includes both evil “stormtroopers” and a victory ceremony for the heroes closely modeled after Triumph of the Will.) And Rogue One’s screenplay, by Chris Weitz (American Pie) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series), from a story by visual effects supervisor John Knoll and screenwriter Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), only muddies these readings further. For every inspiring speech that an anti-Trump rebel may perceive as a call to action, there’s another moment that a rural Trump voter may interpret as a call to Make the Galactic Republic Great Again (at one point Mendelsohn’s snobby, city-dwelling technocrat insults the heroes’ humble life by sneering, “Farming, really?”).
Instead, the movie’s true message—about the importance of knowing when and when not to follow orders—is more immediately relevant to the challenges of making a good Star Wars film in 2016. Last year’s The Force Awakens may have proven that you could still find success, in the 21st century, by adhering faithfully to the Star Wars formula, but it led to a film that was faintly underwhelming—that felt more like a remake than the way forward. But by breaking some of the rules, Rogue One has made itself the first movie since The Empire Strikes Back to redefine the boundaries of what a Star Wars movie can be. The Force Awakens may have reanimated the once-dormant franchise, but it’s Rogue One that will give Star Wars fans a new hope.