Movie review: The Force is with 'Rogue One,' the best Star Wars movie yet
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2016.

No you didn't misread the headline of this article. "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," which opens on, Dec. 16, is the best Star Wars movie ever made. Yes, better than "Empire Strikes Back." And even if that sounds like a blasphemous claim, most fans will probably agree that it as at least light years better than last years "Episode VII: The Force Awakens," which earned nearly universal praise. So you can rest easy Star Wars die-hards: "Rogue One" is nearly as miraculous an achievement as the story it tells. And if you're looking to avoid major plot spoilers, then you'll also be happy to know that this review won't ruin anything major for you that you couldn't already extrapolate from the trailer, as we won't address the several awesome, amazing twists, turns and Easter eggs that are folded into this new adventure.

Calling it the "best" Star Wars film doesn't mean that it's a perfect film, but it's a perfect Star Wars movie, or at least as close as filmmakers have come. It has everything you would want, from brave heroes sacrificing everything for the greater good, to ruthless Empire Imperials lurking and leering out of control-room windows, to massive battles both on the ground and in deep space, with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance. And of course, the Force is always present, but it plays a different sort of role in this film than ever before, as we see its affect not only on Jedi, but on those that don't have a high number of midichlorians running through their veins.

Where "The Force Awakens" was a sequel to the original George Lucas Trilogy, "Rogue One" is for all intents and purposes, their prequel. It will forever go down in the annals as a companion piece to "Episode IV: A New Hope" and will now be required viewing, as what may as well be referred to as "Episode 3.5."  The major difference between this and the rest of the Star Wars films is that it does not put the Skywalkers at the center, but focuses on a rag-tag group of heroes who are thrust into the most important, crucial mission the Rebel Alliance has ever known.  Where Luke Skywalker was "A New Hope," the characters in "Rogue One" are clearly "The Last Hope."

The story of "Rogue One" was first alluded to in the opening crawl of that first Star Wars movie in 1977.  It said:  "It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet."  These hidden plans are what Princess Leia loads into R2-D2 and companion, C-3PO, and are what they take with them to the desert planet of Tatooine where they first come into contact with Luke Skywalker.  It's a credit to "Rogue One" director Gareth Edwards and his team, that from this generic 40-year-old title sequence, they were able to birth such a well-thought-out cinematic experience.

And trust me:  You will have a newfound appreciation for what went into stealing those Death Star plans.  Part of the beauty of "Rogue One" is how it somehow manages to transform how you will watch "A New Hope" forevermore...you simply cannot watch that film and this one and not have a completely new perspective on just how amazing it is that these stolen plans reach Tatooine in the first place.

The main thematic difference between this and other Star Wars movies is that these main characters do not deal in "choice."  In each of the last seven Star Wars films, major characters were faced with important, fate-altering decisions:  Controlling one's fear, choosing the light over the dark, etc.  Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and company are given no such luxury, no such choice.  They become engulfed and entangled in the Rebellion's desperate mission to strike back against the evil Empire whether they want to be involved or not.   Along with Jyn you have the brave Rebel soldier Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic strategy droid, K-2SO (Oh my goodness, will you LOVE K-2SO).  Then there is the Blind Master Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), who is not a Jedi but who is devoted spiritually to the Force, and his trusty warrior side-kick, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).  A defected Imperial Pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) makes their mission even possible, and several familiar characters within the Rebel Alliance Headquarters will give most Star Wars fans a warm, fuzzy feeling inside when they appear.  There is also a character too cool to spoil named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who is such an extreme badass, that the Rebels refer to him as a rebel.

On the Imperial end of things, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, who is absolutely fantastic in the role) is the plotting bad guy, a long-time Imperial leader who is looking to climb the corporate ladder...if he can be the one to finally squelch this Rebel annoyance, he feels like he will be on the fast track to better and badder things within the Empire's power structure.  Darth Vader, whom also appeared in the trailers for this film, is always present, even if his screen time this time around is quite limited.  Don't worry though...he makes the most of his minutes.

"Rogue One" ultimately benefits from just being a "one-and-done" chapter in the Star Wars saga.  It feels tighter, and feels like more of a complete movie than any of the others.  Because we are primarily dealing with an entirely new set of characters, the film does start off a bit slow, as we are introduced to these new players and how they fit into the overall story.  But from there, things start whirling, and they culminate in what is perhaps the most immersive, exciting 40-minute sequence in the entire franchise...which itself culminates in what is the most tense and thrilling three-minutes of film this year.  You'll know when you see it.  This movie is also dark...just the right shade to make adults squirm in their seats and feel tears well-up in their eyes, but not too much to make the kiddies have nightmares.  And those tears?  They will be tears of joyous nostalgia intermingled with tears of sadness.  Sorry...not allowed to explain further.

There is such a palpable need for this film to please fans of the original that it almost - very nearly - goes too far.  There are so many references and nods to the other films that one or two more nods might have induced eye-rolling instead of tingles.

"Rogue One" simply hits all of the spots it is supposed to and much, much more.  The cast is great, the story is crisp and the dialogue is humorous enough to where it feels like a Star Wars movie.  That, my friends, was the minimum expectation for those going into the theater to see "Rogue One."  All we wanted was for this to be a good movie.

What a pleasant surprise that it ended up being a great one.

Grade:  A

Genre: SciFi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure

Run Time: 2 hours, 13 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen

Directed by Gareth Edwards

Opens locally on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016 (check for showtimes).