Expectations for a Star Wars movie can be crushing. And let’s face it: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has given fans lots to worry about. It’s a one-off, set immediately before the action of Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, and it features an almost entirely new set of characters. Cheers and hoorahs didn’t exactly greet the selection of Godzilla director Gareth Edwards. Then came rumors that Disney was getting jittery about early reactions to the movie and writer-director Tony Gilroy was brought on for extensive reshoots, with Gilroy and Edwards later collaborating in the editing room. And let’s not even get into the boycott threats from white supremacists accusing the movie of being anti-Trump and anti-white.

Sane people, at least, can calm the hell down. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a triumph—fantastic from start to finish and easily one of the very best movies of the series. 

The optimal way to enjoy the movie is to know next to nothing about the plot, which is full of surprises that won’t just send fans into the stratosphere but also send them racing back to theaters to see it again. So next to no plot discussion here (it’s about finding the plans for the Death Star, OK?) and no spoilers, but just know a few things. The screenplay credited to Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, though needlessly muddled at times, is a straight-up war adventure. It’s been photographed with a surprising degree of grime, grit and dark shadows by Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty). The fact that it doesn’t look like any previous Star Wars movie is not only daring but a big, refreshing plus. 

Like all good war films, this one’s narrative is booby-trapped with suicide missions, spies, double agents, explosions and lots of loss and heartbreak–all aided by Michael Giacchino’s strong score, with its irresistible callbacks to John Williams’ iconic themes. This movie hurts, especially because the new characters are so strong and likable that we feel a personal investment in their efforts to triumph over the Empire.

We get several appearances by Lord Vader himself, as well as by the particularly hiss-worthy and faintly Trumpian Orson Krennic, subtly and powerfully played by Ben Mendelsohn. The ragtag Rebel Alliance is ably led by Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, but it’s Donnie Yen’s blind warrior, Riz Ahmed’s spunky pilot and Alan Tudyk’s sarcastic, quippy droid K-2SO who set pulses racing and stick most in the memory. (Read our recent feature on Tudyk here.)

What’s also great about the movie is that its world feels so much more expansive than others in the Star Wars universe, with action playing out across several dazzling and distinctive planets. The special effects and action sequences are thrilling, especially in the last third of the movie where it’s all-out, irresistibly David vs. Goliath-style warfare. Underneath it all, though, the resonant and entertaining Rogue One is about the persistence of hope and faith in the darkest of hours. As we stagger to the end of this epically turbulent year, the movie is all but guaranteed to strike a chord.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story