6.5 out of 10
Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review:
Before delving into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the newest Star Wars offering under the Disney banner, I’m going to assume that you have seen Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. I feel safe in assuming that because Disney and the filmmakers behind Rogue One are assuming the same thing. Rogue One gets down in Star Wars lore and rolls around in it like a pig in a mud pit; it luxuriates in it almost to the exclusion of all else. Rogue One is essentially not understandable without being well versed in Star Wars and in the first film in particular.
Which makes sense from a corporate point of view — there are a LOT of Star Wars fans after all — and that is what Rogue One is: the corporate vision of a popular IP, one which plays to its base and takes absolutely no risks or chances. It’s thoroughly competent and utterly uninspired.
For those not in the know, a long time ago, a galaxy far, far away was run by a tyrannical Empire looking for a way to cement its grasp on all the planets under its sway. The various bureaucrats (Mendelsohn) running the Empire think they’ve finally found that in the spherical form of the Death Star, a space-faring super weapon which can destroy entire planets with one shot of its giant cannon. Specifically the planets supporting the tiny Rebel Alliance fighting against the Empire.
Their only hope to stop such a weapon lies in being able to analyze the plans for the station in search of a weakness. And their only hope in getting their hands on those plans is in the hard-bitten daughter (Jones) of the station’s chief designer (Mikkelsen), who unfortunately doesn’t care about the Rebels, the Empire or anyone else.
As you’d expect from the artisans at Lucasfilm, Rogue One is an action-packed, visual extravaganza which spares no expense in the effects and production design departments. In some ways it is a new look at this very familiar saga. While Production Designers Neil Lamont (Harry Potter) and Doug Chiang (Star Wars Prequels) have spent a lot of time looking towards the original films for inspiration — when they aren’t out and out recreating sets from A New Hope (but more on that later) — cameraman Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) has brought some needed experimentation to classic visuals of the series. From his muddier, high-light free palette (at least partly a result of the choice to shoot on the Arri Alexa digital camera and its more constrained color space) to his choice of handheld shots and atmospheric close-ups, Fraser has brought a new look to the galaxy far, far away and in turn delivered a Star Wars film which does and doesn’t look like a Star Wars film.
It’s a trait which extends to the frequently-marvelous visual effects from John Knoll (who also contributed the film’s story) which ably replicate the original film’s designs while doing things which were impossible in those films. It doesn’t always work, but when it fails it tends to be more conceptual issues than technical ones. A prime example is the planetary shield covering the vault planet the Rebel spies must break into to steal the Death Star plans; it’s the focus of much of the drama of the last act, but it comes across as a suped-version of Planet Druidia’s air-shield in Spaceballs.
Conceptual issues like that are where Rogue One stumbles and they stem mostly from the same cause: director Gareth Edwards’ (Godzilla) focus is not on the story, it’s on reminding people what they like (or at least say they like) about Star Wars in the most direct way possible.
People like Star Wars’ used universe so there are lots and lots of shots of grime and dirt. People like Han Solo, so most of the protagonists are some variation on that particular theme, particularly Jyn who apes his hard-bitten loner hiding a heart of gold character arc to a tee. People like underdog rebels fighting wave after wave of Stormtroopers in a desperate struggle, so there is lots and lots of that. People like X-Wing/TIE Fighter dog fights, so there are a couple, frequently without direct human stakes as only one of the pilots is ever humanized. And people really like Darth Vader (Jones), so he appears in the film for no reason whatsoever except to be in it. If he were removed entirely from the film, it would be functionally unchanged.
Because he’s not the villain; that job is given instead to Mendelsohn’s Director Krennic, who spends much of his time fighting with other Imperials about getting the credit he deserves for the Death Star or being shown up by the Rebels, none of which makes him a particularly sinister or effective villain. Instead he has to spend a tremendous amount of his time standing next to the more iconic and well-known villains of the original films and it continually weakens him as a threatening presence. He’s unfortunately not alone in that regard.
There is almost no character from A New Hope so small that Edwards and his crew can resist bringing them back to mug for the camera while repeating their most well-known bit of dialogue whether through doubles, reuse of footage from the older film or in some cases complete computer-generated recreations of long-dead actors. When it’s not doing that, it’s making deep references into old, hardcore backstory elements like the Whills, in its unending targeting of fan sentiment above storytelling.
It reaches its apotheosis in the third act, when many well-known sequences from the earlier films are recreated – from Darth Vader’s iconic entrance at the beginning of A New Hope to the climatic starship confrontation in Star Wars: Episode VI Return of the Jedi – and any pretense of trying to do anything other than that is dropped. It’s so prevalent that the last ten minutes stop being about Rogue One’s story and is entirely a direct lead into A New Hope, which will leave anyone who has not seen that film entirely in the dark.
Which is too bad, because when Rogue One just focuses on itself it’s got some interesting elements, particularly its notion that the Alliance versus the Empire was not blanket good versus evil and that in the service of a greater good, the Alliance was willing to do some morally questionable things. Some of the characters are, if not unique, interesting and well-executed.
Alan Tudyk as a reprogrammed Imperial droid brings both needed humor [Jyn and Rebel intelligence operative Cassian Andor (Luna) are snarky but not particularly funny] and actual humanity to a film, which is often lacking in both. He is by far the best thing about Rogue One and steals every scene he’s in, but there aren’t enough of them. He has a tendency to show up just long enough to say something funny and then get sent back to the ship, either because he’s too expensive to animate all the time or no one can figure out what to do with him. Either way, his absence is noticeable.
The only one to give him a run for his money is Donnie Yen as a blind former Jedi Temple guardian on Jedda (because the Jedi come from Jedda, apparently). He’s caustic and warm and focused in a way none of the other human characters get to be; and he’s downright magical when Yen gets to break out some of his classic kung-fu moves.
Even without the constant, unending shout-outs, there is a limit to how much of that sort of thing the filmmakers seem willing or able to squeeze into the film. The script co-written by Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) and Tony Gilroy (who worked with producer Kathleen Kennedy on many of the Bourne films) from an original draft by Gary Whitta has a lot of plot to be gotten through with a lot of moving parts, particularly once the spies learn where the plans are being kept and launch their fateful mission.
As befits much of Gilroy’s work, there are a lot of passwords that need to be found and disks that need to be grabbed and switches that need to be pressed as opposed to more human contact. Fortunately everything of importance has a very, very big switch attached to it in order to make sure the audience can follow along. Like the technicians working on the film, these guys are all seasoned pros who know how to make this kind of techno-thriller adventure story and Star Wars patina aside, there is little in Rogue One noticeably different from other action films.
More significant than any of those issues is the fact that at some very important level, the guiding vision of Rogue One isn’t Edwards’ or Kennedy’s or any of the people actually making the movie – it’s the notion of giving fans what they know they want out of the franchise.
And that is ultimately self-defeating, because when that’s the focus it becomes impossible to give them what they don’t know they want. It was the latter which brought Star Wars into existence originally, and to keep the franchise from stagnating into a series of endlessly repeated fan-approved moments (as the James Bond series did for so many decades). It’s a focus which needs to be remembered.
Rogue One is Star Wars for hard core fans who felt left behind by the prequels, but it’s got little to offer casual viewers beyond competent, uninspired thrills.[Gallery not found]