Rogue One Relies on the Force Over the Power of a Good Script
A few fun beats aside, this is an unnecessary and distracting Star Wars story.
Prequels face an uphill battle for several reasons with the biggest being that their outcome is already known before the opening credits even begin. (Seriously, if you can name more than one great prequel than that’s one more than me.) The most reliable way to succeed really is to tell an unknown story – think Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom – otherwise you need to charge that hilltop and make audiences believe they’re seeing a rich story and outcome for the very first time.
Rogue One doesn’t quite make it up the hill.
As a quick recap, the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) opens with characters secreting death star plans away from the Empire and eventually into the hands of the Rebel Alliance thereby allowing them to attack and destroy the moon-sized weapon. The focus of Rogue One is on the effort – and the team behind it – to steal those plans.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) was just a child when she saw her mother killed and engineer father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), abducted to work on creating the death star, and now years later she’s a crook with love for neither side in the impending intergalactic war. When a cargo pilot (Riz Ahmed) for the Empire turns traitor in order to get a message to the Alliance he’s nabbed by an extreme freedom fighter named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who happens to be the man who raised Jyn after losing her parents. The rebels blackmail her into getting their foot in Saw’s door but only she sees the message – Galen is alive, he’s planted “a small, deeply-buried flaw” in the death star, and they need to steal the plans so they can destroy it.
That’s all the plot details you’ll find here, but what follows is Jyn’s assembling of a team who know going in that their mission might just be a one-way ticket.
It’s clear what Rogue One is supposed to be – a scrappy action/heist film populated by a rogues gallery of anti-heroes prepared to sacrifice their lives if necessary – but while director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) delivers some solid third-act action here too much of what comes before feels like afterthought, exposition, and the most egregious misuse of CG in years.
The script (from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) tosses the team together with little regard for crafting engaging, convincing characters, and while that’s fine for the film’s more humorous and action-filled moments it leaves intended emotional beats falling flat. Dialogue includes a couple smart and funny lines, but too much of it consists of telling not showing, clunky exchanges, and an over-reliance on characters reminding us this is a Star Wars film by turning “the force” into a running non-sequitur.
Darth Vader gets a wickedly good scene late in the film, but first we have to endure him making a “choke” pun like some kind of second-rate Bond villain. The main bad guy, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), fails to feel like a threat and instead spends the film whining and continually finding himself in the same place as our heroes – an impressive feat given the size of the galaxy and the number of planets visited here.
We’re bounced around quite a bit, but for all the new locations and planets the story feels stalled for much of the first ninety minutes. There’s a curious lack of momentum as character introductions fall mostly flat and their choices feel arbitrary on their collective journey towards what amounts to more of a smash ‘n’ grab than a heist or intricate theft. Much of it feels like disconnected filler, and that in turn feels like a result of forcing a story where there is none.
And then there’s that horrendously distracting and unfortunate CG used to bring back two characters from the original trilogy. I won’t name either, but while the second is only used briefly towards the end the first appears early, frequently, and gets several minutes of screen time. It’s as if a character from Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express joined the Empire, but it’s made worse by the character/actor being one we’ve seen in the flesh – and this waxy nightmare is anything but flesh. It’s an odd choice all around as this character doesn’t even need to be here.
The film looks good throughout with Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) delivering an earthy, energetic style in moments both peaceful and bombastic. Michael Giacchino’s score occasionally risks too much familiarity, but it never overwhelms. Production designers Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont deserve credit too as they’re tasked with creating a sci-fi world in a 2016 film that still needs to fit with George Lucas’ 1977 original. The weapons and tech need to match while still feeling fresh to our eyes, and they succeed (to the point where you might wonder why these characters are still using bulky headsets).
An exciting third-act ends things on a high-note, and before that there are smiles to be had thanks to the likes of Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk. Yen gets to display his martial arts skills for his biggest audience yet – an audience that will hopefully rush home to seek out films like Ip Man, Flash Point, and SPL – and comes off far better than the stars of The Raid managed in The Force Awakens. Tudyk meanwhile voices the film’s breakout character, a robot named K-2SO, and delivers almost all of the film’s laughs. Jones anchors the film well enough and often overcomes the script to find the spunky heroine missing from the page with a grimace or a glance.
The idea of a stand-alone Star Wars movie remains a good one, and hopefully we’ll get many more in the future. Ideally they’ll be their own stories though wholly removed from the main franchise. Small connections are fine – a passing character, a brief mention – and while this film squeezes some of those in its ultimate problem is its existence as little-more than a lead-in to an entirely different film we already know so well.
For all that feels uninspired and unnecessary in Rogue One, it’s no disaster. But it is a galaxy far, far away from being all that memorable.