Though The Force Awakens was instantly critiqued for rehashing the tried and true Star Wars formula, Rogue One was always poised to be a nostalgia fest of the highest order. A story about the ragtag group who steal the plans to the first Death Star? This is peak Star Wars, a cornerstone of the entire galactic mythology.
But how does it fare under a new status quo where Star Wars movies will be the norm practically every year for the foreseeable future? Rogue One delivers on the visual feast that audiences expect of a Star Wars film—yet somehow manages to miss out on the character journeys it requires to prop up its premise.
[Very mild spoilers for the film.]
Rogue One is right up there with The Empire Strikes Back in terms of cinematic beauty. The film does in incredible job creating new settings, new aliens, and new architecture for the Star Wars universe, while expanding upon old forms and themes. The battle sequences are immaculate (in their messiness) and the people are beautiful (in their weathered exhaustion). All the appropriate cues exists, all the tension required of the main plot is supplied by offering up a loving combination of the familiar and the brand new.
The appearance of certain characters—Grand Moff Tarkin was always on the cast list for Rogue One despite Peter Cushing having passed away over 20 years ago—is jarring in the extreme, and often not in a good way. There is a CGI problem in this film that I won’t delve too far into here, but suffice it to say, rendering whole human characters in CGI is still a gimmick no matter how pristine. There is still an uncanny valley, it is still difficult to watch, and there is something to be said with working around the issue instead of ploughing straight through it as though no one will notice the difference. Sometimes restrictions create more creative solutions than having every possibility at one’s fingertips.
The opening of the film is oddly paced and devastatingly slow at times. This is mostly an issue because not much of import happens in the first half of Rogue One. The film could have easily cut out a half hour of material and lost nothing. (Then maybe added in another half hour that better established its focus.) There are introductions to people who we never see again. Lengthy flashbacks that would likely be more effecting if they were shorter and required a bit more interpretation. Whole side plots with villains who we don’t need to spend nearly so much time with, who are mainly there to make us gasp in recognition.
The problem becomes the characters. There are about seven in the central group led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of the man who helped the Empire to design the Death Star weapon. While every actor in the film is expertly cast and inhabits their roles well, the script offers them so little to work with that it is difficult to see crew as anything more than well-played tropes. And seeing as Star Wars films already live and die by tropes, this weird emptiness makes it much easier to “see the strings” as it were. Instead of background we get personality quirks. Instead of in-depth exchanges we are given a few establishing squabbles to make sense of who is part of this group and why. Instead of discussions dealing with perspective and beliefs we get mantras.
To put it another way, creating an action film with over a half-dozen main characters is not an insurmountable task. But when said action film is a straight-up war movie, the audience needs a clear focal point for their emotions. Those emotions are typically focused on a character or two, but Rogue One does something awkward—it puts the focus on the event itself. We’re supposed to care because we already know how important it is for the Rebellion to get their hands on the Death Star plans.
Director Gareth Edwards promised audiences a war movie, though, and he delivered on that in every possible way. When the film finally reaches the “war” part of this war movie, the emotional resonance of the plot suddenly kicks in. The battle sequences are imaginative, the characters are suddenly behaving with a great deal more life and verve, and the stakes have never felt higher. The trouble is making sense of what the film’s thematic takeaway is meant to be; is this supposed to be about the enduring power of hope? About who truly pays the price in large-scale war? About how fights are won by the few who are willing to do what needs to be done? It’s certainly not about one young woman’s transformation from scrappy urchin to a seasoned rebel fighter because that narrative doesn’t exist in Rogue One. Jyn Erso is simply the one for the job because she wants the job. She wants to do this on behalf of her father.
The truth is that the latter half of the film, watching stormtroopers come to blows with rebels on beaches filled with palm trees—it’s still a treat. Rogue One knows how to deliver on that “star wars-y” feeling that so many fans have been yearning for since the original trilogy days of yore. Everyone looks grungy and worn, the technology is bare bones and clunky and odd, the battle delivers better than any that the mythology has delivered up until this point. But without the resonance needed from a cast that has so much to give, Rogue One feels far more cynical than it should—a movie about a thing that fans already know about, designed to get them excited because it’s something that they already know about.
When you’re wasting talents the likes of Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Felicity Jones, and Diego Luna, that’s good cause for a shed tear or two. Rogue One is effecting because its beats are the refrain of a song that we’ve already heard, but it’s hard not to feel cheated out of a wonderful set of characters who deserved a premise that would truly showcase their abilities. Instead, they were all part of a film that effectively manipulated its audience into building up their legacy.
It’s just too bad that legacy belongs to the franchise as a whole, and couldn’t be uniquely theirs.