And so, after much fanfare, the first “Star Wars Story,” Rogue One, is here. Does it live up to the hype/inflated expectations created by the massive success of The Force Awakens?
Set immediately before the events of the original Star Wars, (Episode IV to you, buddy), Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance stole the plans for the Death Star. The story focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young woman who has rebelled against the Empire her entire life. Her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is a scientist who worked on the Death Star. When Jyn was a child, Galen was kidnapped by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to bring him back to the Death Star project. She is then raised by revolutionary Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and when Rogue One picks up the story, she has been on her own since she was a teenager. She is rescued from a labor camp by the Rebels and is brought before Rebel leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and General Draven (Alistair Petrie). The Rebels want Jyn to set up a meeting with Saw, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Saw has captured an Imperial defector, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who has word of a powerful new weapon. In exchange for her help, the Rebels ensure that Jyn will go free, though they’re never really clear on how they’ll keep her out of an Imperial prison for all her crimes against the Empire. Jyn is paired with Rebel Intelligence Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who works with a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), who has quite a sarcastic personality. Along the way, Jyn and Cassian pick up two more companions: Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind monk who believes in the Force, and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), a fierce warrior and Chirrut’s protector. Jyn and her companions search for Saw on the ancient Jedi planet of Jedha. However, the Empire has tired of Saw being a constant thorn in its side, so the Death Star is dispatched to destroy the Jedi holy city to demonstrate its capabilities. When Jyn finally meets up with Saw, she learns that the message Bodhi carries is from her father and Galen reveals he has built a weakness into the Death Star. Jyn’s group hatches a plan to steal the Death Star schematics from the Imperial archive on Scarif, but it is a mission from which everyone may not return.
Directed by Gareth Edwards with a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, Rogue One is the first in a planned slate of Star Wars spinoff films—the next is a young Han Solo film starring Alden Ehrenreich and set for 2018. If you look at that synopsis above and find it kind of convoluted, it is. You would figure that a movie about stealing the Death Star plans would be fairly straightforward and streamlined, but that’s not the case here. The first half of the film is overly complicated and that hurts the film immensely. How you ask? Well, because this film is a prequel, the audience already knows how it ends, especially since it hooks up directly with the original film. So, making the story ridiculously convoluted for no reason—and no real plot twists—is a waste of screen time when there’s zero tension at the end of the film. The filmmakers would have been better off spending that time delving into their characters and making the audience fall in love with them, but…they don’t do that either.
Because the film is a prequel, it is essential that the film has characters that the audience cares about, but the characters in Rogue One are so underdeveloped that it’s tough to give a damn about what happens to any of them. Yes, Baze and Chirrut are cool, but we don’t learn anything about them to make us care about them. And even though she’s the primary character in the film, Jyn’s development does not extend much beyond “Galen Erso’s daughter.” In fact, the only character I really cared about was K-2SO and he is solely the comic relief. That’s a bad sign and it’s ultimately why Rogue One suffers as a film. It also doesn’t help that if you describe the film to someone in one sentence, you would say, “It’s the story of the Rebels stealing the Death Star plans,” but the protagonists aren’t even aware that that’s a thing they have to do until 2/3 of the way through the film. That’s the sign of bad storytelling—no clear goal and a lot of filler.
So, you’ve got a film suffering from “prequel-itis” with weak characters, it must be terrible, right? Not entirely so. The action is topnotch and well-choreographed and there are some very cool moments throughout, especially in the final space battle—more on that in a moment. There are multiple callbacks to the original movie and some work better than others. It was also neat to see the filmmakers squeeze in some elements that had been planned, but cut, from previous films, like Darth Vader’s castle. I also really enjoyed seeing the Empire at work amongst regular citizens—we’ve never really seen that before, watching the Empire actually oppressing people.
The special effects are incredible. There is one character from the original film that plays a significant role in this film—and actually serves to undercut Krennic as a villain, sadly—but the actor who played him is resurrected digitally. I’m not going to get into the ethics of doing this, but the CGI ILM uses to recreate his face is amazing. He looks great. Another character makes a CGI appearance at the end of the film, but it doesn’t work nearly as well.
One thing that did not resonate so well for me was Michael Giacchino’s score. I can understand not wanting to repeat John Williams’ iconic score and forge something new, but it just doesn’t feel like a Star Wars film without the Williams themes. The score Giacchino delivers has strains from the original, but overall, it’s pedestrian at best. It has its moments, but it’s nothing to write home about.
Finally, and we’ll be getting into some SPOILERS here, but really, how can you spoil a movie when the audience knows how it ends? As I said, the space battle looks very cool and the action is great—though I would like someone to explain to me why the Rebels sent more ships to steal the Death Star plans than they did to fight the actual Death Star—but at the end of the battle, you find out that Princess Leia is there on her ship from the beginning of the original film. Her presence at the battle makes zero sense based on the fact that she was already supposed to be on a mission for her adoptive father, Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), and why would a senator be in a pitched battle attacking the Empire when she was supposed to be an undercover collaborator? On top of that, Vader sees her ship escaping so when he meets her again in the original film, his dialogue makes no sense. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but it shows that Disney shouldn’t be making prequel films, at least not any that link directly with the films that have already been released. This connection should be seamless, but in Rogue One, it’s clunky and nonsensical. It feels like Disney wants to connect all the dots for the audience, not trusting us to figure things out for ourselves. It’s insulting. END SPOILERS
The cast is fine here, but their characters are pretty boring, sadly. Jones is fine as Jyn, but as I said earlier, there isn’t much to her character beyond that she’s Galen Erso’s daughter. Her turn from disinterested participant to full-fledged resistance fighter is too quick and easy and, of course, revolves around her father in some way. Luna is also fine as Cassian, but I found his character to be especially frustrating. There are moments where the filmmakers give him an opportunity to expound on his character and background and then they quickly shift away to something else. He too has a quick turn from conflicting with Jyn to being totally on board with her plans. Yen and Jiang are a nice duo, but again, we end up learning nothing about them except that they’re cool. Yen has some nice fight scenes, but why the Stormtroopers didn’t just shoot him before the first one, I’ll never know—again, the script doesn’t make a lot of sense. Ahmed is fine in his role, but honestly he’s not given a lot to do. Whitaker’s performance is quirky enough to make Saw a somewhat interesting character, but he is also a character carried over from The Clone Wars cartoon, so he at least has some backstory to draw on. Mikkelsen is all right as Galen, but as is becoming a pattern, he isn’t given all that much to do. He was an Imperial officer, seemingly on Coruscant—the capital planet—and then left because of…reasons. He already had his family, so it wasn’t like he and his wife had Jyn and then realized they had to escape. We never really learn what made him defect/quit. Mendelsohn does the best he can with Krennic, but the character is just completely unnecessary here because of the inclusion of the digitally-resurrected character I mentioned earlier. That character blunts Krennic’s impact and he then comes across as a supervisor that’s angry his boss is taking credit for his work. Unfortunately, I really didn’t care about anyone except K-2SO and that’s because he’s the only one with any real personality. Tudyk totally steals this film. It’s great to see such a multi-cultural cast in a Star Wars film, but I just wish the filmmakers had given them more to work with. If the filmmakers had made the first and second acts less convoluted, we might have actually gotten to know these people.
While it is definitely a beautiful and action-packed film, Rogue One has to be marked as a disappointment. This movie felt like the filmmakers wanted to make three different films—a spy film, a war film, and a space epic—and they half-assed all three. I have to wonder just how much the allegedly massive rewrites and reshoots impacted the film and what we might have gotten if Disney had just left well enough alone. The characters have their moments, but are mostly bland and one-note. Unfortunately, when you’re making a prequel film where the conclusion is already a known quantity, it’s the characters that have to shine in order for the film to be a success. Sadly, this is where Rogue One fails. There’s a lot to like here, but ultimately, it feels like a wasted opportunity.