Set to John Williams’s memorable fanfare, the famous opening credits crawl of 1977’s “Star Wars” described a setting of galactic civil war that go on to win hearts and minds for generations since.  A portion of the crawl read:

“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.”  

Episode IV went on to speak highly about the off-screen sacrifice.  “Rogue One” is the story behind that heroic lore and initial conquest.  It is very difficult sometimes to create suspense when you know the ending or what will happen next, but “Rogue One” answers that challenge with excitement to spare.

Breaking tradition to open with a signature Michael Giacchino musical stinger and no credits crawl, “Rogue One” introduces us to Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a former Imperial engineer who deserted the Empire to raise his family in solitude away from their control.  Galen’s former superior, Commander Orson Krennic (professional movie villain Ben Mendelsohn), has found him with the intention of forcing him back into vital service.  During the confrontation, Galen’s young daughter Jyn escapes capture and comes to be raised by storied Rebel resistance fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a character first introduced in the canonical “Clone Wars” animated TV series.

Fifteen years later, the Death Star is nearly complete under Galen's chief designs and the fledgling Rebellion is on the brink of failure.  The now-grown Jyn (“The Theory of Everything” Oscar nominee Felicity Jones) is recruited by distrusting Rebel intelligence spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his enforcer droid K-2SO (the go-to voice of Alan Tudyk) on the planet Jedha to help apprehend a defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who can locate Galen Erso’s base of operations.  The Rebel Alliance leaders on Yavin 4, led by by the likes of Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), believe Jyn could be the motivating key to either turn Galen to their side or infiltrate his work.  

Along the way, Jyn and Cassian pick up a pair of freelance warriors as new allies, namely the blind staff-wielding Chirrut Imwe (international martial arts star Donnie Yen) and armed-to-the-teeth Base Malbus (Chinese actor Jiang Wen).  Inspired by a new cause and desperate to stave off impending annihilation on a planetary scale, Jyn and Cassian ignore the impossible odds for success and leadership’s orders.  They rally a handful of troops to lead the titular suicide mission to pilfer the schematics that reveal the Death Star’s exploitable weakness.

“Godzilla” reboot director Gareth Edwards helms solid action entertainment for this first step in the new “Star Wars Anthology” series aiming to create newfangled story angles and attract casual audiences.  As with any “Star Wars” film, hundreds of top-of-the-line professionals provided spectacular technical and artistic razzle-dazzle in the areas of practical and digital visual effects, rich soundscapes, stellar costumes, and other space opera creations.  Michael Giacchino’s perilous score is a slight step down from the magic of every note the great John Williams has put on musical measures, but his work swells and paces the adventure just fine.  Cinematographer Greig Fraser is two-for-two this month, after the upcoming “Lion,” in shooting raw vistas of endless scope.  With locations on the rocky greens of Iceland and the tropical atolls of Maldives, “Rogue One” looks and feels exotic and fresh.

Beyond the sensory stylings, one of the strongest draws for any “Star Wars” film are compelling characters at its core embodying the franchise’s fantasy and mythology.  This is a place where “Rogue One” can only reach certain heights and glass ceilings due to a crowded picture of new players.  Alan Tudyk’s witty droid and Donnie Yen’s whirling dervish of Force-believing zen are standout ensemble members.  By contrast, Diego Luna and Forest Whitaker feel like missed opportunities for more, especially considering their talent and stature.  Only Felicity Jones receives an elevated platform for deeper impact and remembrance.  Jyn is the second straight commendable and strong female lead protagonist, though she peaks well below Daisy Ridley’s Rey from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  

Lags of tedious preparation towards mounting conflict aside, there is more than enough big-screen excitement infusing the gravitas that gives way to pathos in the screenplay assembled by Chris Weisz and veteran “Bourne” series scribe Tony Gilroy.  The film smoothly delves into an untold narrative while providing clever and catchy callbacks and nods to the expanded universe we know is on the other side of the horizon.  Fleshing out key history, “Rogue One” instantly becomes an indispensable companion piece to “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope.”  Watching this mini saga and seeing the seeds it plants makes one appreciate the fruits of the 39-year-old classic’s triumphs even more.

LESSON #1: THE FIRST STEP TO BREAKING INTO SOME PLACE WITHOUT THE TARGET KNOWING IS HAVING THE KEY OR THE CODE-- This is the eighth “Star Wars” universe feature film now and there must be no less than three scenes per film that surround the good guys sneaking or breaking into inaccessible places with means they shrewdly acquired.  Smart tactics!  They always do their homework and know just what to say.

LESSON #2: STORMTROOPERS STILL CAN’T SHOOT-- Bring on the memes and fan videos! Never change, stormtroopers.  Never change.

LESSON #3: THE ILLUSION OF PEACE GARNERED BY TERROR-- We have also seen eight films of hubris and power-mongering illusion from the Empire. There is never enough strength, resources, army forces, or destructive power to satiate their thirst for absolute political and societal control they try to broker as peace.

LESSON #4: REBELLIONS ARE CAUSES BUILT ON HOPE-- This paraphrased mantra of the film touches all of the bases.  Starting from what a father does to protect his family in secret defiance to what a daughter will do to honor her him in return, hope is the leading the emotional anchor for every underdog in every fight.  Radicals, freedom fighters, oppressed minorities, heroes, and antiheroes will call upon hope to guide their actions.  As long as they have hope, they have a chance.