Keeping track of the Star Wars films is a complicated business, so here is a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to the space opera so far.
First came George Lucas’s seminal Rebels-vs-Empire trilogy, which defined the modern blockbuster in the 1970s and 1980s. The series was then revived in 1999 for another, inferior trilogy, although those films were set in an earlier period than the first ones. And then, last year, a third trilogy kicked off with Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which was set some time later.
Read David Gritten’s review of The Force Awakens
All clear so far? Because here’s where things get really complicated. The eighth entry in the series, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is a tangential yarn which doesn’t feature any of the usual heroes, and which takes place just before the events of the original 1977 film.
That one, you may remember, declared in an opening caption that Rebel spies had got hold of the plans for the evil Empire’s planet-obliterating super-weapon, the Death Star. Rogue One explains how they managed it.
Its scowling heroine is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the Death Star’s reluctant designer. Unbeknownst to his genocidal bosses, he built a design flaw into the space station for the Rebels to exploit, and he told his daughter about it in a secret message. All Jyn and the Rebels have to do is to break into the Empire’s archives and make off with the blueprints, and they will know exactly how to turn the Death Star into stardust.
Ultimately, Rogue One is a heist movie, but there’s a lot to sit through before the heist gets underway. The film starts by cutting between 10 different planets and introducing 20 different characters, including a Han Solo substitute, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and his robotic sidekick, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a cross between Chewbacca and C-3PO.
By the time Jyn has assembled her ragtag crew of desperados, some viewers will have lost all sense of who’s who and which solar system they’re in, and others will have been put off by a tone and colour palette which are darker than those of any previous Star Wars outing.
The film’s director, Gareth Edwards, dispenses with much of the romance and comedy which made the series such a family favourite, choosing instead to emphasise that if “War Is Hell”, as the phrase goes, then Star Wars can be hell, too.
In its last third, though, Rogue One finally gets into gear. When Jyn and co head for the Empire’s archive, we’re treated to a spectacular and uplifting adventure which crams in every element a Star Wars buff could possibly want, from breathtaking intergalactic dog fights to the reappearance of countless supporting characters and catchphrases from elsewhere in the franchise. Darth Vader aficionados, in particular, will be delighted to see the heavy-breathing anti-hero pick up his lightsaber once again.
But what about viewers who aren’t Star Wars buffs? As exhilarating as it often is, Rogue One can’t shake off an inevitable whiff of superfluity. After all, rather than advancing the series’ plot, it merely fills in a gap in a plot which unfolded nearly four decades years ago. And while last year’s The Force Awakens managed to introduce a new generation of heroes who were almost as likeable and distinctive as those in the original trilogy, the grumpy Jyn and her gruff cohorts don’t have enough personality to win us over until the film’s closing minutes.
These niggles leave Rogue One feeling like a strange sort of betwixt-and-between enterprise. Star Wars devotees will adore it. Everyone else can feel free to ignore it altogether.