What if the best "Star Wars" movie ever made wasn't a part of the mainline series? What if that movie broke all the "Star Wars" rules and invented its own?
What if there were no cutesy moments wedged in with the goal of selling action figures or pillow cases? What if there were no romance or throwaway gags? What if one of the heroes were a woman, and the other was a Mexican dude? What if there were no Jedi? What if the characters in the movie don't have time or inclination to flirt, wisecrack or listen to cantina music? What if a "Star Wars" movie somehow dared to start without the grandiose, traditional fading text crawl?
What if it the best movie in the franchise was "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" -- and it wasn't even close?
Director Gareth Edwards does the same thing he did with the "Godzilla" franchise. Driven by his obsessive love of the material, he grabs ahold of it and twists out all the cheesy, pandering excess and penetrates to the core of what makes the series great.
Playing free and loose with the franchise's established rules, Edwards and his writing team work within the tight confines of the timeline's constraints to tell an urgent, dark tale of vigorous heroism amid certain doom.
As Edwards did with the beast in his "Godzilla" reboot, he uses Darth Vader sparingly but with cunning effectiveness. Rarely has the villain been more foreboding than the way he's portrayed here, as a cold, grim authoritarian who wastes no movements and would rather simmer than monologue his inner thoughts.
The story is a brutal, frenzied-paced military procedural about how and why the Death Star came to be destroyed by Luke Skywalker flying blind through its trenches at the end of "A New Hope."
As it turns out, a lot of people had to risk their lives just to grab a hold of the plans that Leia managed to message-in-a-bottle to Obi-Wan. And none of it would have been possible had not the entire insurgent plan been masterminded by a disgruntled engineer whose name and deeds had been lost to the smithereens that his grand design was fated to become.
Edwards' tale focuses not only on the heroism of the engineer (Mads Mikkelson), but his estranged, criminal daughter (Felicity Jones) and her unlikely vigilante pilot ally (Diego Luna). Although the Jones and Luna characters are at the forefront, they are simply cogs in the overarching machinery of the unlikely, desperate plan to stand up to the Empire's fascist regime. To win this war among the stars, it didn't take the Force or light sabers. It took regular people who were willing to stare down the darkness within and without themselves and fight and think like hell.
Although there is plenty of breathless action in the movie, the effects-driven scenes, battles and wild escapes are eclipsed by the negative space, staredowns and verbal jousts. This is a movie that cares deeply about the inner political divisions and bickering within the Empire and Rebel Alliance.
Even a dynamite script would have paled had Edwards' team not nailed the details to make this look and feel like circa-1970s science fiction. The settings, costumes and makeup are obsessively dedicated to the visuals of the original trilogy, down to the archaic display panels aboard ships.
This is a movie for the hardest of hardcore fans to savor, analyze, debate and devour. There is no hand-holding or chance for the uninformed to catch up. But the filmmaking is so airtight and authoritative that my guess is that even those who care nothing at all about "Star Wars: would lose themselves in its endless thrills. Its climax gives me chills just to recall, culminating in one of the most somberly beautiful scenes of the year.
That, and Darth Vader eventually pulls out the whoopin' stick that is his light saber and shows everyone who's boss. This is a "Star Wars" movie, after all.
RATING: 4 stars out of 4.