Rogue One gives the Star Wars geeks what they want – but is it any use for the rest of us, asks MacDara Conroy

Fear not, Star Wars nerds: Gareth Edwards has given you exactly what you wanted, with bells on. Two years on from his helming of another legendary sci-fi franchise in Godzilla — itself a huge leap forward for the director of the middling mumblecore of Monsters — he hasn’t collapsed under the weight of expectation in charge of one of the biggest of them all.

And that’s no thanks to a screenplay that’s clearly gone through too many hands. Scripted by Chris Weitz (American Pie, The Golden Compass) and Tony Gilroy (Armageddon) from a story by Gary Whitta (After Earth) and ILM effects whiz John Knoll, it’s a beast of a thing, a mess of plot strands, jarring leaps between locations, and lashings of purple dialogue, the darlings they just couldn’t kill. You won’t remember the names of half the cast, unless you’re a diehard who knows them all already.

That’s not even getting to the references. While not completely mired in tired nostalgia like last year’s The Force Awakens, the echoes to the films this one immediately precedes are hard to ignore, and some work more than others. That indelible John Williams score is quoted throughout, but rarely repeated note for note. Those iconic spacecraft and war machinery reappear in new contexts. The Death Star, so central to this ‘what happened then’ story, looms large over proceedings — as does the shadow of Lord Vader.

Less acceptable are the superfluous cameos from franchise favourites, and incongruous quotes to tickle that fan service fancy, hanging like an albatross around the director’s neck, though at least they don’t outstay their welcome like others I could mention.

Then there’s the fact that our hero, for lack of a better word, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is essentially a Luke Skywalker analogue. Grows up on a farm? Check. Abandoned at a young age? Check. Father (Mads Mikkelsen) works for the Empire? Check. Taken under the wing of an enigmatic stranger? Check. The key to saving the day? You get the idea. Her main partner in crime is rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Mexican Han Solo, all the way down to his hulking sidekick, in this case a smart-arsed machine voiced by Alan Tudyk who’s more-or-less a riff on Marvin the Paranoid Android.

Rogue One

The rest of their motley crew — assembled during an over-extended and confused first half in pursuit of Kurtzian rebel separatist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) — includes a defecting Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed), a blind warrior shaman (Donnie Yen) and his gun-toting companion (Jiang Wen), who add some colour to proceedings. Pun slightly intended.

That colour comes with shades of grey. While the darker tone certainly takes its cue from The Empire Strikes Back, the characters, while underdrawn, owe more to that other Star franchise, in particular the ulterior motives and discomfiting politics of Deep Space Nine. There are no real heroes here, even if their actions lead to renewed hope.

Edwards works with what he has in tying up so many disparate locations and situations to bring this gang together, though following the story might be rough going at first for anyone but the most ardent super-fan, who’ll surely go nuts over the sprinklings of lore from the ‘Expanded Universe’ of novels and comics, with hints at the origins of the Jedi and whatnot. The swift pace and confidently directed action should be enough to pull everyone else through till it finds its feet.

When it does, it’s a winner. There’s a big part of Rogue One that wants to be its own thing, even given the inevitability of its conclusion. We know the rebels get the plans to the Death Star, which diminishes the drama somewhat. So it’s to Edwards’ credit that he wrangles the busy plot into focus and crafts an exciting heist movie from the script’s second half. Our not-quite-heroes find common cause in the task at hand, much to the disgust of Ben Mendelsohn’s pitch-perfect snivelling military man Krennic. He’s far and away the best among a serviceable cast.

Here’s what you really want to know, though: is Rogue One any use for those of us who aren’t Star Wars geeks? Well, it makes a case for being the best in the franchise since Empire, though that might be damning with faint praise. Still, as a blockbuster spectacle with thrills and spills galore, it does the job handily. Provided you skip the murky 3D version, that is.

Rogue One opens nationwide in IMAX, 3D and 2D on Thursday December 15th

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