It's finally that time of year again. All year long we look forward to December and the joy its many traditions bring. Yeah there's Christmas, but the last month of the year is also known for dropping the most highly anticipated franchise blockbusters too. From the days of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, to last year's hotly awaited return of Star Wars, December couldn't deliver more movie buzz if it tried.

With The Force Awakens relighting the Star Wars fire last year and setting the box office alight, the unstoppable intergalactic franchise is back again with a new movie that falls outside of the main saga. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is more than just a spin-off, this is gonna be essential Christmas viewing for veteran sci-fi fans and casual cinema-goers alike, and we’ve collected all the essential info for you here.

It’s the first of the anthology films

“Anthology films?” you might be asking. Possibly while thinking of anthology horror movies/TV episodes presented by the Crypt Keeper. Well it’s sort of like that. The anthology films are completely standalone stories that make up the much wider Star Wars cinematic universe.

So, that means they’re not a continuation of the story first laid out in last year’s The Force Awakens as they take place at a completely different time (more on that later).

Rogue One, the first of the next three films and the one you’re here to read about, comes out on December 15, followed in 2018 by the Phil Lord and Christopher Miller-directed movie known currently as "Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Anthology Film" (it’s a great title – I say keep it); and then the third anthology film is due in 2020 with little detail attached.

In between those, there is of course, the main trilogy with Episode VIII coming next year courtesy of Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Breaking Bad), and then 2019 sees Episode IX being directed by Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow. You’re in good hands for a while, we’d say.

This is only the director’s third film

That’s right. Prior to Rogue One, British director and VFX artist Gareth Edwards had only directed two other feature films. His 2010 debut Monsters caught the eye of the Hollywood studios not only for being a compelling and original sci-fi tale, but for the fact that Edwards basically did everything himself, and we mean everything.

He wrote, directed, and edited the whole thing, as well as doing all the visual effects himself on his home computer, on a minuscule budget. He famously said that “you can go in the shop now and you can buy a laptop that's faster than the computers they made Jurassic Park on.”

This sort of savvy production skill for very little money was a desirable trait that caught the attention of Warner Brothers, who brought him on board to direct their 2014 reboot of Godzilla. While the big-budget monster movie wasn’t met with sweeping critical acclaim, it still performed phenomenally at the box office, setting Edwards up with more than enough Hollywood experience to helm Rogue One.

Some of you might still think that isn't enough experience, but the third movie George Lucas ever directed was none other than Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, with his two previous efforts being THX 1138 and American Graffiti.

You’ve seen the story before

I don’t mean this in the "Star Wars is just a rip off of Flash Gordon and an Akira Kurosawa movie, with a few Westerns thrown in for good measure but set in space" sense. (Although, yeah, A New Hope is exactly that.) What I’m referring to here is something from the very first moments in A New Hope – the title crawl.

You’re probably familiar with it. It’s parodied in pop culture so often that it kind of belongs to everyone by now. I wonder how many people worldwide have it memorized. But that little bit of text in that opening crawl that sets the scene for A New Hope essentially tells you a good chunk of the Rogue One plot.

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. Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy....

The middle part of that text is what you want to be focusing on – those secret plans for the Death Star that are pretty much vital to the original trilogy had to come from somewhere, so Rogue One is there to follow the rag-tag group of rebels who make it their business to pull off an intergalactic heist. You probably know how it’s going to end, but that’s not going to stop you is it?

Rumor has it that the story of Rogue One will end about 10 minutes before the events of A New Hope begin – which according to an article by The Hollywood Reporter explains the reshoots that took place on the film back in May.

There’s already a prequel

Rogue One is a standalone story that acts as a prequel-of-sorts to the original trilogy and sits on a timeline somewhere just after the other trilogy that’s also a prequel to the original, but takes place well before the other, other trilogy which is a sequel to the original trilogy…got that? Well there’s a prequel to that prequel too. It’s a book, but it counts nonetheless.

Catalyst, the officially licensed prequel novel by prolific Star Wars novelist James Lucerno, was released just a few weeks ago and gives a little bit of background to some of the characters in Rogue One. Primarily the book tells the story of Galen Erso (who’s played in the movie by Mads Mikkelsen).

Erso is a scientist and the father of Rogue One’s lead protagonist Jyn (played by Felicity Jones). Turns out he’s a politically neutral scientist that’s trying to create a clean source of energy for the universe yet somehow accidentally assists in the building of a planet-destroying laser for the Death Star (hey, it happens to the best of us).

Star Wars being Star Wars, the whole “well-intentioned Dad goes bad, child cleans up the mess” narrative seems to be getting another outing here, but if it ain’t broke…

The book also touches on Jyn’s mother Lyra – an environmentalist, believer in The Force, and all-round space hippie; and Orson Krennic – the evil-doer in residence who manipulates Galen into making said laser.

So if you really want to walk into the cinema armed with enough knowledge to put you on a watch list, maybe get reading.

It’s all about strong women

Like The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One is paving the way for female protagonists in a central role. Where TFA had Rey, Rogue One has Lyn. The original story treatment for Rogue One by John Knoll (of Industrial Light & Magic VFX company and co-creator of Photoshop) had a female lead from the very start, and director Gareth Edwards was keen to keep it that way.

"Part of the process of making this film was to look at the ingredients that make A New Hope and then flip a load of them and see what works,” he said in a recent interview with SFX Magazine. “The obvious one is that the hero is a male, so how about a female hero here?”

Far from being simply a gimmick of opposites, a lot of thought has gone into casting a female lead for an atypically female role. Edwards also explained: “I think if we swapped Jyn today to a male, there’s nothing in there really that would contradict that. Jyn’s not written as a girl, she’s written as a person, and it just so happens to be a woman that we cast.”

It was George’s idea all along

He just doesn’t know when to step away, does he? Despite being thoroughly distanced from all Star Wars ventures since the $4 billion Disney buy-out in 2012. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy discussed how these standalone stories were something she discussed with George Lucas when she first came on board.

[George] had often thought about doing [standalone stories] and he had actually written down three or four thoughts and ideas, directions you could go. Obviously inside the mythology there were lots of opportunities. So that was the first conversation I had.

Rest assured though, the actual idea for Rogue One’s story didn’t come from Lucas – as mentioned earlier it comes from VFX mastermind John Knoll. Lucas also apparently didn’t spawn the idea for the Han Solo movie, so there’s likely to be very little talk of trade embargoes and the like, mercifully.

It looks like Lucas’ greasy prints might find their way into the film in other ways, as Total Film reports that an Easter egg in Rogue One has his blessing. Apparently whilst on a tour of Rogue One’s design department, Lucas saw a helmet design that was going unused and remarked “that’s cool, I like that.” Which seemed to make Gareth Edwards and his team determined to find a way to sneak the helmet into the movie somewhere. It’s anyone’s guess which helmet exactly, as there’s not even the slightest hint of a description of it anywhere, so keep an eye out for any unusually cool-looking helmets, I guess.

New scores to settle

Shock! Horror! Blasphemy! This is the first Star Wars movie not to include a score by John Williams. Not only that, but the original composer was slated to be Alexandre Desplat – who won an Academy Award for his score for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. However, due to Rogue One’s summer reshoots, a scheduling conflict meant that Desplat was no longer available and so Michael Giacchino was called in at the eleventh hour to score the movie.

With just four and a half weeks to write the score, Giacchino certainly had his work cut out – but he’s an incredibly experienced composer, with recent credits including Doctor Strange, Star Trek Beyond and Zootopia. It won’t even be the first time he’s taken the reigns from John Williams – having scored Jurassic World after Williams scored Jurassic Park 1 & 2. Safe to say, we’re in good hands.

A huge helping of the Dark Side

You’ve seen the trailers by now, you know the deal. Rumors were swirling around for months about the possible presence of Darth Vader in Rogue One. Fans would have been happy with just a cameo from the big guy with the black helmet, but it looks like he’s going to be in at least a couple of scenes. In the trailers we’ve seen him in fleeting moments, and my god, do they look sinister.

We’re also treated to some pretty gratuitous looks at the Death Star, its inner-workings and that giant planet-killing laser that they sort of tacked on as an afterthought (I mean, why’d they start building a "Death" Star without actually having the "death" part locked down?)

Beyond that we’ve got some new henchmen of the empire to contend with: Deathtroopers. Conspicuously absent from the original trilogy, the all-black Stormtroopers with attitude look like an elite security detail that cut a pretty imposing figure, especially during trailer #2 when they’re seen advancing on Galen Erso in formation. Yikes. Also apparently present in Rogue One are Shoretroopers – who are reported to be stationed along the beaches of an Imperial military HQ on Scarif.

How come these guys are here and not in the original trilogy? Cutbacks, man. Building a giant laser is expensive – you’ve gotta trim the fat somewhere and let’s face it, Stormtroopers are just cheaper.

The new droids we’re looking for

Not quite as merchandise-friendly as the instantly loveable BB-8 (or R2-D2 and C-3PO for that matter), but likely to be infinitely more badass, Rogue One’s droid companion is K-2SO. An Imperial security droid that’s been reprogrammed by the rebellion, the final trailer sees him delivering some pretty killer blows, both literally and figuratively. Just watch him deadpan his way through conversations and casually kill some Stormtroopers and try not to be impressed. Oh, and lest we forget he’s voiced by Firefly’s very own Alan Tudyk! (If you know, you know).

The U.S. will be the last to see it

Sorry North America (that also includes you Canada) but the UK gets to see it a whole day before you on December 15, while France, Italy and the Netherlands get the best deal with a December 14th release. I wonder if any rabid U.S. fans have booked flights already.

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