There’s a reason “Rogue One,” the latest in the world’s most popular film franchises, is tagged as “A Star Wars Story” rather than given an episode number like every other movie in the George Lucas series.

Like its vigilante, independent title might suggest, “Rogue One” stands alone from all seven previous “Star Wars” films in nearly every way, from plot to characters to cinematography. Though it falls within the same universe, “Rogue One” is far from a traditional “Star Wars” film.

Set sometime between the events of 2005’s “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” and the 1977 original “Episode IV: A New Hope,” “Rogue One” focuses on a secret Rebel mission to steal the blueprints to the Empire’s recently completed Death Star battle station capable of wiping out entire planets. The team is comprised of entirely new characters to the franchise led by a young thief Jyn Erso (Oscar nominee Felicity Jones).

Director Gareth Edwards’ foray into “Star Wars” operates in the darker, Empire-dominated mold of the prequel trilogy and “The Empire Strikes Back,” though “Rogue One” also often feels like a World War II era war epic set in the far reaches of space. This heavier tone culminates in one of the franchise’s best extended action sequences late in the film’s third act as the body count on both sides inevitably ramps up.

Jones carries “Rogue One” with gusto similar to Daisy Ridley’s magnificent performance in last year’s “The Force Awakens,” though viewers never get to see the same level of character development in Jones’ Jyn as Ridley’s Rey. The main issue here is that both filmmaker and viewer know that Rey will be a major player in the franchise for several films to come, while Jyn’s story is completely contained in the stand-alone nature of “Rogue One” as a whole.

“Rogue One” also benefits from a solid supporting cast led by Diego Luna as a Rebel Alliance captain tasked with tracking Jyn down, Forest Whitaker as Jyn’s mentor Saw Gerrera and Riz Ahmed as a Empire pilot sneaking secrets to the Rebellion.

Like most “Star Wars” entries, one of the best parts of “Rogue One” is in its robots, namely the reprogrammed Empire robot K-2SO voiced by “Firefly” star Alan Tudyk. The script is strongest in K-2SO’s dry humor while predicting the probability of disaster at every turn and Tudyk’s ability to relay sarcasm in relative monotone effectively is key to the portrayal.

Edwards’ film extends the film’s darker, grittier tone into the cinematography, which relies on tempered browns and grays unlike the bright vibrancy of JJ Abrams’ “The Force Awakens.” His expert use of angles to pit viewers within the shoes of the Rebel Alliance as they take on much larger Empire forces is also a highlight visually in the film’s final hour.

There’s also a terrific use of CGI to help tie “Rogue One” in to other “Star Wars” films in spite of the circumstances. In order to bring classic villain Grand Moth Tarkin into the movie after the death of original actor Peter Cushing, filmmakers used CGI and digitally altered reference footage to insert Cushing’s likeness over the face of Guy Henry, who acted and voiced Tarkin for “Rogue One.” Fans of the franchise will find it nearly impossible to tell the difference without looking for it, which is a great accomplishment.

Because “Rogue One” may not have long-term impact on the “Star Wars” story moving forward, it may not seem to some potential moviegoers that catching this off-shoot film in theaters would be necessary. This would be a tremendous mistake.

“Rogue One” certainly stands out as the year’s best big-budget popcorn franchise film and does a masterful job of filling in the gaps between the original and prequel trilogies of “Star Wars.” The film’s dazzling third act is worth the price of admission alone as Edwards melds old world battle sequences with modern technology to create engaging, visually compelling cinema.

More than any other film in the franchise since “A New Hope,” “Rogue One” is the most accessible “Star Wars” movie for those audience members unable to tell a Wookie from a Ewok and requires no prior knowledge before viewing.

If you’re heading to the movies this holiday season, you could do a lot worse than checking out likely one of 2016’s ten best films.

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