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Along time ago in a galaxy far, far away, fans had to wait years be­tween Star Wars movies, but the space saga is back with the most hotly an­tic­i­pated spin-off in cin­ema history.

Just 12 months af­ter The Force Awak­ens shat­tered nu­mer­ous box of­fice records, Lu­cas­film is un­leash­ing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as an early Christ­mas gift for its mil­lions of devo­tees.

The job of build­ing on Lucas’s legacy falls to Bri­tish film­maker Gareth Ed­wards, who re­called the nerve­jan­gling mo­ment when the leg­endary di­rec­tor called him to de­liver his ver­dict on the film af­ter a pre­view screen­ing.

“I don’t want to put words into his mouth but I can hon­estly say that I can die happy now,” Ed­wards said as he re­lived his tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with Lucas, one of the most fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful film­mak­ers in history.

Ed­wards – ad­dress­ing the world’s me­dia at In­dus­trial Light and Magic, Lu­cas­film’s spe­cial ef­fects stu­dio in San Fran­cisco – de­scribed how it was the one green light he could not live with­out.

“To be hon­est – and no of­fence to any­one here – it was the most im­por­tant review to me, what George thought of it. You know, you guys are im­por­tant too, but come on – he’s kind of God,” he told a room of crit­ics.

Rogue One is part of an at­tempt to re­vi­talise the fran­chise since Dis­ney bought Lu­cas­film in 2012, when it was still reel­ing from grim re­views for the much-ma­ligned 19992005 pre­quel tril­ogy.

The idea was to bring out a se­quel tril­ogy with a movie ev­ery other year – start­ing with The Force Awak­ens in 2015 – and in­ter­sperse those re­leases with an “an­thol­ogy tril­ogy” of one-off, stand-alone movies in the even years.

J.J. Abrams got off to a good start with The Force Awak­ens, which made $2 bil­lion to be­come 2015’s big­gest re­lease, not to men­tion the most suc­cess­ful Dis­ney mo­tion pic­ture and the third-high­est gross­ing movie of all time.

An­a­lysts ex­pect Rogue One to open at up to $150 mil­lion, a bit be­hind the $248 mil­lion de­but week­end for The Force Awak­ens, but still among the top re­leases this year.

Set just be­fore A New Hope, the orig­i­nal 1977 film, it stars Felic­ity Jones as rebel Jyn Erso op­po­site rebel in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer Cas­sian An­dor, played by Diego Luna.

Jyn – a delin­quent with a string of con­vic­tions for forgery, as­sault and theft – is re­cruited by the Rebel Al­liance for a mis­sion to de­stroy a planet-sized weapon of mass de­struc­tion that would later be­come known as the Death Star. “I’d never done that kind of thing be­fore so it was very new, the whole phys­i­cal prepa­ra­tion side of act­ing,” said Jones, who was nom­i­nated for an Os­car for 2014 Stephen Hawk­ing biopic The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing.

“I’m used to lots of talk­ing in corsets so it was re­ally nice to be run­ning around with a blaster and a ba­ton to bash Stormtroop­ers with.”

Crit­ics treated to a 28minute pre­view at Lucas’s Sky­walker Ranch near San Fran­cisco over the week­end noted that Rogue One es­chews the “space opera” aes­thetic of its pre­de­ces­sors in favour of the grit­tier look of a war film.

“We es­sen­tially got a li­cense to be dif­fer­ent on this movie and take a risk,” said Ed­wards, who be­lieves his in­stal­ment – filmed in Bri­tain, Ice­land, Jordan and the Mal­dives – is clos­est in tone to The Em­pire Strikes Back (1980).

To set out the raw look of the movie, the crew took real com­bat pho­to­graphs from Viet­nam and World War II and Pho­to­shopped in rebel weapons and garb, with XWing fight­ers spliced into the back­ground.

“The stu­dio loved it, ev­ery­one loved it, and they said, ‘Go and make that,’ and that’s kind of what we went and did,” Ed­wards said.

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course, and much of the film’s lighter mo­ments come from Alan Tudyk, who had the un­en­vi­able task of hav­ing to fol­low much-loved char­ac­ters C3PO, R2D2 and BB-8 into the Star Wars ro­bot fam­ily.

The actor wore stilts and a full-body mo­tion-cap­ture jump­suit to play K-2SO, an Im­pe­rial en­forcer droid with at­ti­tude that has had its me­mory wiped by the rebels.

“The first month we couldn’t look at him be­cause he just looked ridicu­lous,” said Luna. “It was the tight­est py­ja­mas ever. On his stilts, you were al­ways the height of his balls. It was quite in­tim­i­dat­ing.”

Star Wars: Rogue One is out in all ma­jor cine­mas to­day

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Cas­sian An­dor (played by Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felic­ity Jones) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).

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