I never grew up a Star Wars fan, though I hold some strong affection for the initial entry as a groundbreaking blockbuster, and perhaps its that admiration for the narrative thrust of A New Hope that allowed last year’s The Force Awakens to hit me like a bolt from the blue. Sure, it repeated the major beats of the film it so strongly mirrored, but was such a fine work of blockbuster craft that I couldn’t help but be swept away. The bad taste the prequels left in my mouth was finally washed out and my expectations for what the Star Wars franchise was again capable of began to rocket skyward. To wit, The Force Awakens even made my top 10 list for 2015.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has a lot working in its favor. That includes a diverse and potentially terrific cast (including Oscar nominee Felicity Jones, the ever undervalued Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker and for my money, one of the finest working actors, Ben Mendelsohn), as well as a young and promising filmmaker, Gareth Edwards, whose last effort was a fascinating, if flawed, take on Godzilla; the stronger moments of which painted the possibility for a different kind of Star Wars take. Lastly, this film represents the first attempt at breaking away from the typical episode structure and predilections of the series. With these “Star Wars story” spinoffs, it leads one to hope that new kinds of tales could be told within this universe. While there’s much fun to be had in the George Lucas’ Flash Gordon meets Kurosawa melting pot, the potential of this giant playground is far richer than that. With Rogue One, there’s barely a lightsaber in sight and only sporadic mentions of the Jedi. Instead, Edwards and crew are pitching hard and fast towards a war picture, just with lots and lots of spaceships and laser battles, and some surprising grit.
Rogue One occupies a small space just before Episode IV, parlaying an entire film from the mission that allowed Princess Leia to get her hands on the plans for the Death Star and famously hide them within R2-D2, which sets off a chain reaction of events that gave birth to one of the great hero’s journeys in modern cinema. Remember poor old Rogue Two, who got shot down by the AT-AT in The Empire Strikes Back? This is the tale of the squadron that preceded him. Focused firmly on the travails of Jyn Erso (Jones), whose father (Mikkelsen) and mother (Valene Kane) – both in leadership positions within the Empire – leave after no longer wanting to take part in the tyrannical crusade of Grand Admiral Krennic (Mendelsohn). Having his hand forced, her father is roped back into the Empire’s employ in order to build a weapon that will destroy entire worlds at Krennic’s behest. Jyn is then raised by a fairly fanatical resistance fighter named Saw Gerrera (Whitaker) and after flash-forwarding to her adult years, she becomes recruited by the fledgling Rebel Alliance that hopes to utilize her connection to Saw who has recently received a message of great importance from her father. A message that could very well tip a great advantage into the rebels’ favor.
It seems like a can’t miss premise, and while its a visually lush film with a number of beautifully shot environments, this return to the original trilogy time-frame is a step-backward in Disney’s now annual trip to “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. Let’s break down why exactly:
- Characterization is basically non-existent – Sure, a number of very good actors are definitely playing physical roles and exist on screen, but could I tell you anything about any of them short of the film’s lead? Not on your life. I don’t exactly expect a large treatise on who Cassian Andor’s grandfather is and what his favorite food might be, but I’d like a little more to chew on than what we’re given here. Everyone just fulfills an archetype: stoic rogue-like adventurer, blind and spiritual warrior, loyal best friend, guy trying to atone for his past misdeeds, and it never really goes far beyond that. The Force Awakens had its share of thinly fleshed out players, but imagine if 90% of its cast was about as well defined as Poe Dameron, a character that only worked thanks to the sheer charisma that Oscar Isaac imbued into him? When the sassy robot, voiced and performed in motion capture by Alan Tudyk, is your biggest standout (and to be fair he’s very funny and quite touching), it really speaks to the deficiencies of how these characters are developed on screen. I couldn’t help but wonder while watching: did I miss some required reading material? Why do I not care whatsoever about anyone on screen? And the most compelling thread, that of Jyn vs. Krennic, feels like it barely gets an opportunity to breathe.
- It’s awfully boring for significant stretches. While it’s not without some nice action beats; Chirrut Imwe, a sort of Zatoichi homage, gets some fun choreography in, but there’s a significant amount of “boom boom” and “pew pew” with little compelling connective tissue in between. When the big finale rolled around after the very sluggish second act, I felt like I was in the middle of a plane ride that would never end. It all becomes a matter of “flip this switch” or “turn this lever” and “plug this thing in” and the stakes feel comparatively very low because, as with all prequels, we know how this is all going to turn out. There’s no dramatic tension whatsoever, and almost every revelation and major action you can see coming a thousand miles away. Predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’ve got an involving enough screenplay and depth to compensate, but that is sadly not something that Rogue One is able to offer.
- The fan service is out of control. Yes, again, this was a problem that somewhat dogged The Force Awakens, but here it feels like someone at Disney hacked the script to pieces at various intervals to make sure we get the requisite nods to the film that follows it. This includes the not particularly effective Darth Vader appearance, other cameos that serve no other purpose than to distract, and the reshot ending that closes the film with maybe the most groan inducing line in franchise history (I haven’t watched the cartoons or read the comics, so feel free to correct me, anyone). But the most egregious bit, is the disastrous choice to utilize a CGI character that is in such astonishingly bad taste, and fairly horrendous quality, I can’t believe it got through anyone’s filter or the multiple drafts and screenwriters that were involved.
For just about every potential good moment it flirts with, Rogue One trips over itself with senselessly poor decisions and a breakneck pace when it really could have used some time to allow this feisty little team time to marinate. It feels like what ended up making the final cut was more concerned with winking at long-time fans than telling an essential, stand-alone story. I’m certain there were a number of great storytelling possibilities here given its varied and promising pieces, but somehow Edwards just can’t seem to pull it together.
Still, I look forward to what Rian Johnson is cooking up for next year. Here’s to 2017, and hopefully a better class of blockbuster.