I get the sense that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (directed by Gareth Edwards) is a movie a lot of people are going to bend over backwards to like. I don’t mean that to sound condescending, as I count myself among the people who did their very best to like this movie. After all, Rogue One is a film about a multicultural rebellion standing up to the Galactic Empire, which is essentially an organization of Space Nazis. In the age of Donald Trump and his myriad of alt-right (Neo-Nazi) followers, how could you not try your hardest to like a movie that seems to have its heart, and its politics, in exactly the right place at exactly the right time? Nevertheless, I am sad to report that Rogue One is a failure on almost every level. The characters are paper thin and sport confusing, often contradictory motivations. The plot relies heavily on boring exposition and it suffers from every major symptom of the dreaded disease know as prequelitis.
The film’s protagonist is Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones), an apathetic and isolated woman who gets caught up in the rebellion against the empire. Jones delivers an adequate performance but I find myself at a loss for specific parts of it that I can praise. This might not be her fault however, since there is almost nothing to the character. I do not exaggerate when I say that every major character moment she has is directly attributable to her father. She wants to ditch the rebellion asap until her the prospect of seeing her father again gets her to hang around. After her dad tells her to steal the Death Star plans, that’s exactly what she does. It is so confounding because her journey from apathetic loner to inspiring rebel leader should so obviously be informed by her exposure to the rebels themselves and getting a closer look at their convictions. As far as I can see, that is simply not the case. Instead, Jyn’s journey happens between the scenes, while Jyn’s father provides all of the narrative thrust necessary for moving Jyn from place to place.
Jyn fairs better than her team however, all of whom fail to make a dent in the enormous Star Wars character roster. I feel bad for Diego Luna, whose Cassian Andor the filmmakers expect to be emblematic of both a simple rebellion of clear cut heroes and a complex rebellion where nobody is the good guy. This is a character who will shoot an ally in the back (for reasons that remain somewhat unclear) and then tell Jyn that “Rebellions are built on hope” ten minutes later. In trying to have their cake and eat it to, they completely kill the audience’s interest in Cassion. The rest of the team are barely even characters. There is a pilot who doubles as a tech guy, a guy whose entire character can be summarized by the words “he has a big gun sometimes” and Chirriut Imwe (Donnie Yen), whose depiction registered to me as kind of racist. Chirriut is both the fortune telling mystic and the martial artist of the group. Furthermore, them isn’t a whole lot to him beyond that. I’m sure this is a cast of characters that the fandom will project a lot of stuff onto (“look at the face he made when Jyn said that, he obviously as a compelling backstory”!) but, at least on a first viewing, tangible and interesting character elements failed to register.
There is one character who you will, in fact, fall in love with. Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO is a symbol of everything that Star Wars can be. A robot with more personality than most of his human compatriots, K-2SO is a character you will feel real emotion for over the course of the film. On top of that, he gets a number of organically hilarious lines that killed in the theater I watched the movie at. I should note that the reason I say “organically hilarious” is because the film is peppered with Marvel style jokes that feel as obligatory as they have in every Marvel movie sine The Avengers. At any rate, I loved spending time with K-2SO and I hope the producers over at Disney realize why he was the stand out of the film. He gets real development, he is visually interesting and there is real emotion behind him. You know, like the entire cast of the original trilogy.
The film has potentially interesting commentary on the nature of rebellion. We see both Jyn and Cassian have become somewhat jaded and disaffected in their own way. As they hold each other accountable for their faults, they each discover something worth fighting for. Cassian criticizes Jyn’s apathy while Jyn calls out Cassian for his dogmatic following of orders and willingness to cross moral lines. This is all theoretically compelling stuff that is hurt by the weak characters and their confusing motivations. I’m not sure if it is the writing, the performances, or both, but the characters constantly feel like they are flipping from one characterization to another instead of behaving as single, multifaceted individuals. At one point, after Cassian says “rebellions are built on hope” Jyn scoffs and retorts “hope?” as if it is a foreign concept. The problem is that nothing substantially changes for her to take her from her cynical worldview to the dyed in the wool rebel leader that she ends up becoming. The same goes for Cassian, who goes from disliking Jyn to being willing to follow her into battle after she gives a simple speech. As such, the thematic points that the film is making feel half hearted because we haven’t actually seen these characters become the rebels that the film wants to exemplify.
There is one more area where the film succeeds. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of building a grounded version of the Star Wars universe. The Star Wars films have thus far been set in a high fantasy world, where it is hard to imagine people live day to day lives between epic adventures. Rogue One is still set in that world but given to us by way of Game of Thrones. Cinematographer Greg Fraiser makes great use of handheld shots to help achieve this effect. In addition, Edwards’ decision to ditch the conventional Star Wars scene transitions go a long way to help make this world feel different without it feeling too different. I was impressed by the way that the Star Wars was able to be made tactile and grounded and it provides me with hope that these annual Star Wars films will be able to feel different from each other. It is just such a damn shame that nothing interesting happens in this world.
On top of the unengaging main story, the film is constantly dipping into asides that make it function as a more straightforward prequel to A New Hope. I’m sure fans will be divided on this but I think that every single one of these scenes serves to make the movie worse in some way. The Darth Vader stuff is awful, as Vader doesn’t actually interact with any of the film’s protagonists. He gets a brief scene where he chews out Orson Krennic (played with an almost bureaucratic menace by Ben Mendelsohn) and another action scene that has no bearing at all on the narrative proper. To add insult to injury, James Earl Jones’ return to the role is less than compelling (maybe we should just let Star Wars people retire at some point). Unfortunately, Vader isn’t the only character unnecessarily trotted out to establish a New Hope connection. CGI is used to make Guy Henry look like Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and is it jaw droppingly awful. If you had a friend who knew nothing about Star Wars, you could convince her that these scenes were edited in by a fan that used footage from an old PlayStation 2 game that featured Tarkin as a character.
Overall, I find myself with very few positive things to say about Rogue One. Parts of it seem to indicate that there are better Star Wars Stories on the horizon. If they could truly bring a unique feel to these spin off films and allow filmmakers to tell interesting stories with the backing of the world’s biggest franchise, then Disney could truly have something special here. Unfortunately, the film does a lot better at being distinctive then it does being interesting. I have more complaints but they all bottom out into the same problem. Namely that the film feels like it is the result of the producers getting cold feet. They fill the story with gratuitous cameos, the climax goes too big and shoehorns in a space battle full of characters that we’ve never met before that moment and the complex world that story gestures at is constantly simplified. It seems like someone at Disney was noting the production to death, telling the filmmakers to make it “more Star Wars” than it was. I can’t speak to whether or not that is the case but it is certainly the impression that the movie leaves you with (the fact that there were reportedly substantial reshoots corroborate this theory to some extent). Still, one can’t help but hope that Disney eventually cracks the formula on these movies. If Rogue One is any indication, they still have a long way to go.