It was inevitable. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe almost single-handedly keeping Hollywood afloat with its conveyor belt of cinematic fan food, Disney was bound to apply the same method to Star Wars upon its acquisition. Released at a time when our corporate culture’s rebranding of the terms “rebellion” and “empire” has translated to a general state of political confusion, Rogue One is a topical product in and of itself. What pitch could possibly be more seductive in an age where everyone is convinced they’re plucky little rebels in the face of an almighty monstrous mastodon?
It’s easy to be cynical about Disney’s plan to release one Star Wars film per year and see it as an obvious cash-grab plan designed to extract more dollars from insatiable fans while giving more time to perfect the stories that actually matter. Yet truth be told, the creative opportunities offered by the new Disney model are too good to pass up; with enough video games, comic books and novels to fill a public library, the Star Wars franchise is a self-replenishing storytelling goldmine. There’s a myriad of ways with which stand-alone films can explore the original films’ universe in broader detail, and Rogue One was as good a springboard as any to do so: Through the story of how the Rebel Alliance got the plans for the Death Star, writers could expand upon ideas suggested by the original trilogy by giving us a glimpse of regular life under the Empire and showing us the inner workings of its citizenry. By defining the galaxy’s politics and exploring how and why people choose to rise up against oppression, Rogue One had a golden chance to further enrich the Star Wars cinematic universe.
It’s too bad, then, that most of these opportunities run afoul of the mechanized Campbellian plot imperatives that the original Star Wars perfected so beautifully. After a promisingly quasi-Leonean opening that sees young Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones as an adult) whisked away to Rebel custody as her father is forcibly recruited to build the Death Star, the plot makes a lightspeed jump ten years into the future and never pauses again. Henceforth, every beat, line and shot is at the service of product delivery, whether that product is information, sensation, temporary visual pleasure or the entirety of the film itself.
The most striking thing about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is how underhandedly it discards its many nuggets of progress in order to keep its viewers under the impression that they’ve taken a few new steps in a world that seems both unexplored and stubbornly familiar. As if to counter the (justified) criticisms leveled towards The Force Awakens for its overly-reverent devotion to its predecessors, Gareth Edwards and his team spark up a few touches of novelty here and there only to instantly shape them to the will of the plot. Thought Jakku was too much like Tatooine? Here’s ANOTHER desert planet with vaguely Islamic-looking architecture and clothing, except this time we give it additional subtextual relevance by making it the hideout of an ill-defined “extremist” Rebel faction that kidnaps and tortures our heroes and attacks troops in the middle of a crowded street. Found the original movies’ good-versus-evil narrative too manichaeistic? Let’s introduce our heroic Rebel agent by having him murder a defenseless informant to protect his mission, then build conflict around a secret mission to assassinate Jyn’s father.
These potentially fruitful ideas tease moral complexity only to serve the audience more of the same ready-made meals with just a slightly different aftertaste. Shades of grey remain unexplored, leaving only the ghosts of unfortunate implications created by their mishandling (are the visual references to the Syrian Civil War meant to suggest ISIS or other Islamist-aligned rebels are otherwise good people who take resistance too far, as opposed to genocidal imperialist theocrats?).
Likewise, the promises carried by protagonist Jyn Erso are systematically squandered. As the first non-Force sensitive central protagonist of a Star Wars film, she could have upset the saga’s pre-established notions of heroism by linking the now-customary quest for familial redemption with political awakening rather than inherited greatness. Too bad the rushed pacing, flat dialogue and automated narrative structure make her characterization inconsistent, unconvincing and ultimately boring. Conveniently abandoned off-screen by Rebel-turned-“extremist” leader Saw Gerrera (a wasted Forrest Whitaker) after the death of her mother and kidnapping of her father, she is reintroduced to us as a chained criminal, the extent of her opposition to the Empire unclear and her personal beliefs virtually non-existent. Ostensibly, her arc is about her finding a real reason to oppose the Empire and reconnect with her father but very little she does or says elaborates on that. She simply becomes whatever the story needs her to be in order to continue, tossed around from orphan to fugitive to desperate daughter to true believer with no attempts to engage the audience with her feelings, desires or thoughts. Try as she might, Felicity Jones cannot compensate for the screenplay’s inadequacies or Edwards’ unimaginative direction, leaving her performance as cold and sterile as a spaceship’s interior.
The same applies to her unlikely comrades-in-arms, which include Diego Luna’s aforementioned Rebel agent, Riz Ahmed as a renegade Imperial pilot and Donnie Yen as a Zatoichi-like warrior monk with no Jedi powers save for some vague degree of Force-sensitivity that makes him able to sense murderous intent. Despite auspiciously varied backgrounds, they remain indistinguishable puppets dancing to the plot’s notes. Instead of weaving connective tissue between each other to form a single purpose (isn’t that what the Force is supposed to do?), characters simply show up, state their names, explain their goals but never follow up on them. It’s ironic that the only personality that comes close to feeling organic should belong to a droid; as the caustically deadpan K-2SO, Alan Tudyk brings a skeptical kind of wit that fits quite neatly with the story’s intended mood. Even at the best of times, however, he comes across as a slightly more proactive C-3PO whose backstory as an Imperial droid captured and reprogrammed to serve the Rebels raises fascinating ethical questions on synthetic free will that go completely ignored.
It’s not an altogether unexpected surprise that Rogue One’s most interesting character should be its villain, but the cause and consequence certainly are. Standing out as the only fully-realized character with clearly-defined goals, motivations and values, Director Orson Krennic’s efforts to climb the Imperial military-industrial ladder provide a refreshingly mundane source of dramatic conflict. Watching such a theoretically generic antagonist wilt under pressure from Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry, disguised with a semi-convincing CG Peter Cushing mask) and trudge through humiliation and failure in the hopes that he may one-up him is genuinely fascinating, and grants precious insight into the Imperial mindset beyond obvious Nazi cultural shorthand. While certainly not one of the most complex Star Wars characters, Krennic benefits strongly from an insightful performance by Ben Mendelsohn, whose gritted-toothed snarls weaponize frustrated bureaucratic ambition with humanizing aplomb.
It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Krennic should feature in the film’s other highpoint which is the greedily anticipated return of Darth Vader. As befits a villain of his stature, his reintroduction combines silent-era fantasia with the baroque grandiloquence of sci-fi serials from which Star Wars draws so much of its charm. In a volcanic lair straight out of Tolkien’s nightmares, he comes to us like a long-dormant phantom, his shadow slowly rising from beneath an off-screen vertical sliding door until Krennic’s puny white silhouette is dwarfed by it. It’s a gorgeously atmospheric scene whose composition strongly evokes Vader’s first face-to-face encounter with Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.
If only the rest of the film displayed such visual flair. The Star Wars saga was never really meant for any auteurs besides George Lucas and his students but Gareth Edwards’ lack of imagination, combined with Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s lackluster writing, robs many scenes of their desired impact. Dialogue scenes – particularly crucial in a film about coming together for a cause – are shot and edited like TV commercials with only a cursory regard for blocking and coverage; bravura moments such as a climactic space battle around a planetary shield or the Death Star’s first small-scale test show sparks of conceptual novelty but lack emotional impact or scale. We don’t care what happens to the characters because we’ve barely gotten to know them.
But ultimately, the crux of Rogue One’s failure lies in its approach to its subject. It tries to be another big space epic when it should be a more intimate, character-based story about people deciding to put their lives on the line for something greater than themselves. Instead of playing more of the same games of chase and destruction, the creative team could have improved the saga’s foundation by straying from formula and keeping most of the fireworks off-screen. For all the efforts Gareth Edwards and co. have made to impress the stakes and sacrifices of their heroes upon us, their chapter feels like little more than an inconsequential footnote.
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Scr: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, James Earl Jones
Prd: Kathleen Kennedy, Simon Emmanuel, Allison Shearmur, John Knoll, Jason D. McGatlin, Kiri Hart, John Swartz, Susan Towner, Toby Hefferman, Finni Johansson
DOP: Greig Fraser
Editing: John Gilroy, Colin Goudie, Jabez Olssen
Music: Michael Giacchino
Running time: 133 min
Star Wars: Rogue One is available on Blu-Ray and DVD on 10th April