Gareth Edwards admitted to having panic attacks while directing Godzilla in 2014. I mean, who wouldn’t when your second feature film – first studio film – stars the 350 foot tall Japanese icon. But Edwards continued to build on a brilliant debut, 2010’s Monsters, with Godzilla. Showing a flare for visual storytelling and a strong eye for character that gave a nearly 400 foot tall lizard some genuinely enjoyable character moments. It’s talent like this that caught the eye of the head of Lucas Film, Kathleen Kennedy, as Edwards was announced as the director of the first standalone Star Wars film in Disney’s ambitious plans for the franchise. But despite the clear talent that Edwards has, Star Wars would be his third film. And the question still remained if Edwards could deliver. And with the debut of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Edwards answered that question. The force was with him.

Rogue One is set just before Episode 4 and focuses on the new super weapon the empire is building – the death star. The rebels convince Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, a woman with a colourful past to track down her father – the designer of the death star. In turn, the rebels will give Jyn a new identity for her help. Right from the off, Rogue One, out of the two trilogies, has a far darker tone about it. You actually realize this is a war. It’s the best aspect of this movie in the sense it’s a slow burn story that allows you to connect with these characters and then the magic and epic feeling of a Star Wars film takes these characters into an epic climax that is every bit worthy of a Star Wars story. And, like any Star Wars film, it’s the characters that make these stories. And Rogue One is no different.

Rogue One and Edwards have a far tougher problem than Abrams and Episode 7 ever did because not only is  this is a stand alone story, it’s an ensemble story. From the moment Jyn agrees to help the rebels, the story builds in a Magnificent Seven-style story that sees a group naturally form around Jyn. And in the two hours runtime of Rogue One, you never realize this is an ensemble film. What Gareth Edwards has done masterfully is balance and build his characters so that every character gets their time, their relationships are fleshed out and established, above all you care for these characters. And these are characters that don’t come out of nowhere. They come into the story naturally, never once pulling you out of the story.  And everything in this world is effected by these characters. And while Rogue One features a world we’re more than familiar with, it’s nostalgic and comforting like a blanket. From the ships to clothes, Edwards manages to bridge the 70’s origins of Star Wars with modern technology to create the scenes that George Lucas wanted to make. Edwards keeps the characters and story in focus even when the action is pushed to the level Star Wars has made famous.

These characters are what makes Rogue One work so well. And this darker tone actually helps you connect with them because they come off as real. You get the look of torment on Diego Luna’s face with what the rebel alliance has him doing. You get Jyn Erso’s character when she runs from everyone. Felicity Jones plays Jyn with a weakness that you can relate too living into a world of scum and villainy that’s under the thumb of the empire. The way Jones comes at Jyn is a woman who is every bit as strong as her male counterparts, but who doesn’t have a lot hope left in her. And her story peaks to an immeasurably satisfying conclusion. What gets you about Jones is that when she tells you something, you believe it. She has an honest in her performance that is easy to get caught up in. Ben Mendelsohn plays the villain to Jones’ hero in director Krennic. And Mendelsohn is delightfully slimy as Krennic as he brings that feeling with him that he’s willing to do anything to get what he wants. One of the only failings Rouge One has is the fact that Krennic is robbed of a great deal of authority as the villain of this story by including Darth Vader. That being said, Darth Vader’s cameo is  actually used to push the story and to bridge Rouge One and Episode 4. As well as being extraordinary satisfying to watch. Rogue One shows you why Darth Vader’s reputation as the greatest villain in movie history is very well earned. Diego Luna’s rebel officer, Cassian Andor, mirrors Jyn in a lot of ways as Luna brings a hollowness to Cassian. Luna takes the weight of Cassian’s struggle easily. You see the toll these choices the rebels ask him to make are having on him. You get Cassian and why he decides to go with Jyn.

As great as this cast is, Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe and Wen Jiang’s Baze Malbus’s involvement in this story are questionable. To Edward’s credit, he makes it work. But when I was watching the movie, I just felt like these two came into this story “just ‘cause”. That being said, you can’t not like these two. I’m referring to them together because Baze will always watch the back of Chirrut. Despite how stupid Baze things Chirrut is being by walking calmly through a massive fire fight. Yen brings a great deal of spiritualness to the role more so than just action – which he definitely delivers on as well. It created a role with a surprising amount of heart as he pointed Jyn in the right direction – despite being blind. And it would be easy to say that Jiang gets over shadowed a lot by Baze’s relationship with Chirrut. But the heart that these two displayed was some of the most touching moments that Rogue One had.

Alan Tudyk already made a name for himself with the brilliant performance as Sunny the robot in the 2004 film I, Robot. And he built on that performance with the 8 foot tall reprogrammed Empire droid K2SO. And whereas Sunny was very much a robot trying to understand human emotion. K2 was the 80 year old grumpy old man of robots. Tudyk revelled in K2’s paranoia and use of statistics and built a story that mirrors the real world with him and his rebel team. And the work on K2 himself is fantastic. Not once did he ever look like a CGI character. I have to give a lot of credit to Edwards, coming from a visual effects background allowed him to truly make K2 in a character that you can easily connect with – just by giving him eyes. Unlike other popular droids in the franchise, K2 is a character that isn’t here just for the sake of comedic relief. You get what K2 wanted, and why he was so defensive. Somethings may get so advance in the world, yet somehow don’t change.

Rounding out this cast is talented Riz Ahmed as a defecting imperial cargo pilot, Bodie. Like the theme of hope that Edwards keeps strong through every character and story, Bodie isn’t seeing a lot to hope for during his defection until he meets Jyn and her group. Riz plays Bodie as a quick thinker and, despite not looking like much, is just as useful as the massive mercenary  soldiers he finds himself transporting in the film.

Guy Henry is gets a spotlight for playing Grand Moff Tarkin. Played in the original film by Peter Cushing, whom died in 1994. Guy, an English trained stage and film actor brings an impeccable performance to the role that was so good, it kept weirding me out. His voice and cadence are nearly spot on to Peter Cushing. It’s the exact same sense of power that you got. I feel this was a performance Cushings would have enjoyed a great deal as Tarkin butts heads with a full on angry Mendelsohn – always an incredible sight to watch. Guy Henry is a far more supporting character to this story, but is perhaps one of the best performances in this massive ensemble cast. The only thing that didn’t work with Guy for me was his face. His face was digitally altered to look like Peter Cushing. And I’ve never been more thankful for the poor lighting in the Death Star than I am with Rogue One. Perhaps it’s the age of Cushing’s that was hard to match, but it was always evident that face wasn’t real.

However, that being said, there is a great deal of CGI face alteration in this movie – sharper eyed fans will note some of the X-Wing pilots – and it’s some brilliant work. I’m thankful that Gareth Edwards has gotten over his nerves when filming Godzilla, because Rogue One is an absolute blast from start to finish and well worth 5 out of 5 stars. He’s managed to add to this universe in a way far better than a lot of previous Star Wars projects. Jyn and her group go from sand planets (obviously), rolling green, wet and over cast fields of foliage and a tropical planet that has a forcefield built around the entire planet.

These characters walk through corridors and use technology that we are more than familiar with and Edwards used the technology of today to truly bring these things to life. Yes, this is essentially history’s most expensive fan film. But you will come out of this film with the same kind of excitement that audiences had leaving the first Star Wars movie back in 1977. Rogue