A significantly smaller movie than its predecessors in terms of scope, Rogue One is nevertheless one of the top two greatest Star Wars movies of all time due to its ability to develop characters and create dueling emotions unlike any prior entry in the series.
Many Star Wars fans were somewhat nervous about Disney’s buyout of the franchise, but after two great movies there can be no doubt that, at least for now, the series is in good hands. What made J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens so great (mixing old characters with new ones, delivering fantastic cinematography, appealing to nostalgia, fixing Lucas’ broken dialog, etc.) was retained by Gareth Edwards, but in almost every way Rogue One is even better thanks to its use of restraint, tragedy, and a very important time placement in Star Wars lore; it ends mere minutes before the original film begins.
Other than perhaps the original, no Star Wars movie has developed so many excellent and deep characters in such a short span of time as Rogue One does. And due to its smaller scope as compared to main series Star Wars films where we are expected to understand every little detail in the galaxy, its almost singular focus on its characters are its strength. Instantly, Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Galen Erso, the haunted creator of the Death Star, is one of the best ever and his foil (and Imperial overseer) Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is at once evil to the core but also clever and stylish. Diego Luna as the dangerous but loyal sharpshooter Cassian Andor is also excellent, and the supporting cast of K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) are all diverse, vitally important, and threaten to steal each of the scenes in which they appear. Even the few returning characters like rebel leaders Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, both of whom retain their original actors (a feat for Mothma’s actress Genevieve O’Reilly considering the original Star Wars movie was 40 years ago now), deliver perhaps their best performances, though nobody is better realized than Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones after all these years) who instills fear and awe in each of his scenes (particularly at the movie’s climax). But as great as all of these characters (and the amazing CG rendered versions of dead ones like Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and even Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa) are, none of them can match the gripping performance of Felicity Jones who plays Jyn Erso, the young daughter of Galen, and gets wrapped up against her will in preserving her father’s good name while simultaneously working to undo what he created. As in all Star Wars movies, the characters are its greatest strength, and with the great, non-wooden dialog watching them interact is a joy. But what really makes them stand out here is the gritty realism of the movie; The set pieces are all reflected in the real world and all of the characters act toward what they think is the best way to stop the Empire, which means they rarely act as a successful, coordinated group. This story takes place in the early days of the Rebel Alliance, well before they become the well-oiled machine that they are in Return of the Jedi, and watching them react with fear and despondence when they discover the Death Star’s power is truly fascinating to a lifelong fan like me.
In the end, Rogue One is not only the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back because of its wide arcing story development, its space fights, or even its fantastic characters, it’s because it delivers a story that is awesome in its own right but also inherently improves the original film. It’s possible that with Star Wars releases every year, the market may eventually get over-saturated and the movies won’t mean as much. But as long as they continue to enhance the franchise with some of the greatest movies in its ever-growing library, they are welcome and should be just as beloved and respected as the originals they emulate.