The release of a new Star Wars film is never just another movie. Through their relative rarity, a Star Wars movie is a major event, taking over the cultural conversation and, of course, the toys and adverts for the season. It worked last year, when the prospect of a new Star Wars lit the world on fire, aided by the fact that is decidedly didn’t suck. Disney’s decision to slot canon but non-saga films in between Episodes at first seemed promising, a chance to explore the universe in interesting ways. Instead of giving freedom to filmmakers to tell original stories, however, Disney has instead greenlit a young Han Solo movie and Rogue One, the story of the theft of the Death Star plans. While the former really seems like a shameless cash-in with no reason to exist other than an easy couple hundred million, Rogue One had a bit more potential, telling the story of the rebels who didn’t quite have a Chosen One status to protect them. While Rogue One mostly works as entertainment and does keep a lot of the necessary Star Wars feel, its indebtedness to its predecessors and lack of focus keep it from ever really popping. For the first time in the franchise, Rogue One really feels like just another movie, something that passes two hours effectively enough but doesn’t leave you wanting to explore more or spend more time in its world. Instead, it left me wishing for what it could have been.
There are at least three great ideas within Rogue One that could have been expanded to make their own movie, but instead get stuffed into a planet-jumping escapade. There’s a movie about Rebel spies gathering intelligence, and defections from the Empire. There’s a movie about extremist factions in the Rebellion, and how they interact with the more moderate yet still militant Alliance (and what extremism even means in these circumstances). And, most prominently in the last act, there’s a Star Wars version of Saving Private Ryan, of Rebel soldiers on a doomed mission. The hints towards this last idea make up the best act of the movie, and there does seem to be some juice in making more movies about The Star War itself. Instead, Rogue One tries to keep the bones of a normal Saga film by having the main characters move all over the galaxy, but continually loses focus in the process.
Having the main characters mobile works well for the Saga films, but the central crew of Rogue One isn’t developed or interesting enough to pull the same trick. For a movie with such a welcomely diverse cast (although still overwhelmingly male), the actual characters in a Rogue One are pretty bland and inseparable. Most pass without much impact, notably Diego Luna’s Rebel captain, while others try to make up for it with hammy performances, notably Forest Whitaker’s extremist leader Saw Guerrara. While Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso isn’t quite a Chosen One in the vein of Luke, Anakin, and Rey, her familial tie to the Death Star plans makes her feel more like a plot device than a character. Although he does get some of the best lines of the film, droid K-2SO feels like a factory-approved fan favourite rather than an inspired creation, answering the question of what a more homicidal C-3P0 would look like. Riz Ahmed’s presence makes up for his character’s complete lack of definition, but there’s no comparison of this batch to Rey, Finn, and Poe in Episode VII. Poe similarly had little definition, but the little touches the script and Oscar Isaac’s performance gave him made him feel complete with relatively little screentime. Outside of K-2S0 and Donnie Yen’s force-sensitive preacher, I can’t say that any of the characters in Rogue One are half as memorable with twice the screen time.
The biggest issue I have with Rogue One, though, is how enslaved it is to A New Hope. As the Death Star is an obvious connection, certain characters make sense to bring back, such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Mon Mothma, and even Darth Vader. But Rogue One doesn’t stop there, and bringing back the likes of the two Mos Eisley bar thugs serves only to distract from the story at hand. In order to bring back Tarkin, a CGI Peter Cushing wanders around. This might have been convincing as a hologram but is directly at the nadir of uncanny valley among flesh-and-blood actors, robbing him of his authoritative presence. Rogue One‘s reverence does give it some strength, reinforcing to a more convincing degree than the original saga the connections between the Death Star and the nuclear nightmare. It also nails the run-down aesthetic in the same way that The Force Awakens did (an inner-city ambush is a highlight for this). But its a necessarily lesser picture because of its indebtedness.
The first shot of Rogue One mirrors the first shot of A New Hope almost exactly, but with a fantastic fake-out that announces itself as reverent, but different. Unfortunately, it overloads on the former and underperforms on the latter. Whether the infamous reshoots had anything to do with it or not, Rogue One is more concerned with comforting its audience than being its own thing. That’s not to say its without merit, though. Star Wars is a fantastic universe to be comforted in, and the final forty minutes of the film deliver on the promise of a story of forgotten heroes, of sacrifice and slim hope. The audience’s knowledge that said hope is fulfilled by a farmboy from Tatooine is the only thing that keeps it from being completely depressing, and I could have done without the constant winks toward that. The finale sequence still stands as both exciting entertainment and a promising launchpad for future side stories in this universe.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, and Ben Mendelsohn
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)
Obligatory Ranking: V>IV>>VI~VII>>RO>>II>III>I