Talk about a blast from the past – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story literally is just that. Taking place just before the events of the first released Star Wars movie in 1977, this spin-off/prequel has the same primitive, lived-in, emotional, loopy, let's-put-on-a-show spirit that made us fall in love with the original trilogy. It's the first stand-alone chapter in the franchise, and not the bridge between then and now that J.J. Abrams cleverly constructed last year with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As a movie, it can feel alternately slow and rushed, cobbled together out of spare parts, and in need of more time on the drawing board. But the damn thing is alive and bursting with the euphoric joy of discovery that caught us up in the adventurous fun nearly four decades ago. Familiar faces, human and droid, make cameos. But not once do you doubt that the new characters are breathing the same air as Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie and that baddest of badasses, Darth Vader.
Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) has cooked up just enough plot to set everyone's wheels spinning, though he cuts right to the chase. We're still in a world set "long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away," but that's it for info; the long scrawling text that opens official Star Wars films is absent here. (So is the John Williams score, though new composer Michael Giacchino samples just enough to get our blood up.) High fives for Felicity Jones, an Oscar nominee for The Theory of Everything, who happily gets her hands dirty and rolls in the muck as Jyn Erso. A born rebel, she's watched the Empire corrupt her scientist father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), by forcing him to help build the ultimate lethal weapon – that's right, the Death Star – and a true a-ha moment for Star Wars junkies. Jyn's mission impossible is to steal the plans for the massive planet-destroyer and foil the villainous Imperial special weapons director Orson Krennic, played by the great Ben Mendelsohn with the most delicious shades of fright and fun this side of Christoph Waltz.
Of course, Jyn needs help. And she gets it from her mentor Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and – for a hint of romance – the dashing insurgent, Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). For sheer scene-stealing wow, though, you can't beat Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior monk, and Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, a nutjob Imperial pilot now siding with the rebels. Best of all is Alan Tudyk as the voice of K-2S0 (Kaytoo to his masters), a security droid with a mouth on him. The 'bot's unasked-for statistical analyses of every war strategy is daunting and, OK, hilarious. "There's a 84 percent chance we'll all be killed," the droid announces lightly.
Then there's the action, which Edwards handles like a jedi master and a kid with new set of toys. From X-wing dogfights to battle scenes that resemble those in Apocalypse Now, Edwards makes you feel every obstacle as the outnumbered rebels face off against the vast Empire, run by Krennic and Vader. And the use of hand-held cameras lets Edwards take us right into battle. Rogue One actually gets better as it goes along, and the combat-heavy last third of the movie is pure pow with a cherry on top.
As always, a Star Wars movie lives or dies depending on how much we give a damn or don't about the characters. Luckily, there are no cutesy Ewoks to soften Jyn's journey into the heart of Imperial darkness. It's no lie that some of the interactions get lost under the weight of front-loaded exposition. But with the smashing Jones giving us a female warrior to rank with the great ones and a cast that knows how to keep it real even in a sci-fi fantasy, Rogue One proves itself a Star Wars story worth telling. It's hard not to get choked up with that blind monk when he chants, "I'm with the Force and the Force is with me." Who'd want it any other way?