The Force Awakens was a worthy Star Wars sequel, and Rogue One is the first true prequel.

It’s also the first standalone Star Wars story and immediately announces itself as such by eschewing the fanfare and opening credit crawl we’ve become accustomed to. It’s a somewhat jarring opening and it takes a while to realise that we’re back in that galaxy far, far away.

Expanding five lines from the 1977 film’s crawl into a 138-minute feature (and you thought The Hobbit Trilogy was ambitious), Rogue One tells a Star Wars story we sort of know already – the theft of the Death Star plans by the Rebel Alliance.

It all hinges on information imparted by the Imperial battle station’s designer, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), whose feisty daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) discovers that her father has built an inherent weakness into the Death Star which the Rebels can exploit.

Together with Han Solo-like ‘scoundrel’ Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (a terrific Donnie Yen), Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), droll droid K-2SO (a less irritating C-3PO, voiced by Alan Tudyk), and a squad of rebel soldiers, Jyn leads a mission to the Imperial outpost on the planet Scarif where the Empire’s archives are kept.

Their main opposition is the Death Star’s head of security, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who answers to a certain Imperial Governor we’ve met before (and who has been resurrected in a creepy, CGI posthumous performance). And then of course there’s Darth Vader, whose inclusion is surprisingly superfluous and more a case of fan service.

While there’s no denying the rush of nostalgia generated by a return to ‘70s Star Wars – director Gareth Edwards ensures the aesthetic matches the original – Rogue One is closer in tone to World War II adventures like The Guns of Navarone than A New Hope.

Edwards has always had a great eye for locations (Monsters) and artistic shots (Godzilla) and that’s just as evident in Rogue One – the Death Star eclipsing a sun, or rising above the horizon like an enormous moon (that’s no moon!) – and he shoots the space battles with the undisguised glee of a fanboy in a dream job. 

Rogue One is undeniably grim for a Star Wars film, even more so than The Empire Strikes Back. It’s also a slow burner, introducing far too many players that look similar and spending too much time planet hopping before the decision is finally made to retrieve the Death Star plans. And unlike the regular ensemble we’ve grown to know and love, you won’t care too much about this new bunch of heroes.

The relentless final act, however, delivers what we expect (and want) from a Star Wars movie as the Rebel fleet joins the battle on Scarif – the action alternating between AT-AT ground assault and TIE Fighter/X-Wing dogfights above. If The Force Awakens stood accused of recycling A New Hope, then Rogue One is guilty of re-staging the finale of Return of the Jedi (sans Ewoks of course).

Like J.J. Abrams’ film, this over-reliance on nostalgia and familiarity is both a strength and a weakness. If the Star Wars universe is to further expand, it doesn’t so much need a new hope as a bold new direction.

In cinemas: December 15, 2016star-3-half
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker
Directed by: Gareth Edwards