This is the second year in a row where Star Wars has been the family Christmas Day movie, but I found last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be the better movie. Yes, I know it was a highlight reel of past movies for the most part, but I’m not a fan of the franchise and I really liked it. Rogue One: A Star Wars story fits into the series as Episode 3.5, where we finally see the mission that saw the plans for the Death Star stolen, and why exactly it was, in the end, pretty easy to destroy.
This entry into the franchise marks the first departure from the cinematic core story since the franchise was acquired by Disney (although the plot is almost a decade old), and while hardcore fans may have been quaking in their boots when The House of the Mouse took over, Disney have been true to their word about not Disney-fying the series. Rogue One was originally billed as a different kind of Star Wars movie, and it mostly is. Taking away the celebration of the glory days that was The Force Awakens, the garbage of episodes 1 -3, that most people would prefer to forget, and a mostly poor Return of the Jedi, Rogue One comes in pretty high in the 8 movies for me – then again, I’m not a fan of the series per se.
So, with that perspective, I can say that this movie succeeded mostly, but failed in key areas for me that are not related to it being a Star Wars movie. I appreciated the darker tone, and I also liked the conceit of making a movie about the story behind the series’ key plot point. As a long-time comic reader, the only retcons I’ve enjoyed were those where someone was savvy enough to look at an historical comic book event and see what might have caused it, without introducing contradictory elements. Rogue One does that well enough (though, since I’m not a hardcore fan, I don’t know if it intrudes on the widespread canon created by the novels, and other related media) that it wasn’t a stretch for me as an audience member to accept it. Wisely, the movie doesn’t rely on the ill-conceived “prequel trilogy” to tell its story, which is a good move – I don’t think there are many audience members (fans or not) out there who don’t know what Episode 4 was about.
So, Jimmy Smits aside, you get an all new cast of rebels to take on the Empire’s lethal jewel in the crown, led by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Inferno) as the reluctant but necessary new addition to the Rebel Alliance. Her Jyn Erso just happens to be the child of one of the Death Star’s lead developers (played by Dr. Strange‘s Mads Mikkelsen), and lack of a father figure in her developing teen years made her a tough-but-principled career petty criminal. This cliché is as deep as the characterization gets here, which is one level of failure for me. To expand on this, fans of the movie appreciate that this is more of a “war” movie than a “Star Wars” movie – and it is, but only to an extent. Where it fails as a war movie is in the characters, none of which are remarkable here. I liked Jyn, but only mostly because I find Felicity Jones nice to look at. She’s not written to be much of an inspiring leader, and because she’s surrounded by people who deserve that role more, it feels odd that she is the one who assumes that position. At least she isn’t written to be a Mary Sue character, like Rey from The Force Awakens. The rest of them are mostly uninteresting, I have to say. The characters and the structure they find themselves in, are my two biggest issues with the movie. Uninteresting characters are just flat out boring to watch and listen to, and I can’t say there was any stand out moment written for them, other than some small sketched in scenes. Blind Asian, good bowstaff fighter, strong Asian simply grunts in a tough manner, Hispanic dude … well, there’s even less of him to speak about. In fact, other than Jones’s level One Pay Grade role, the only character of any real note is the sarcastic, snarky robot K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk. The robot came off to me as more of a theater critic than C-3PO’s effeminate butler, but was the most enjoyable character in the movie for me. And to me, that’s a major issue. Sure, it isn’t like the Star Wars franchise hasn’t elevated robots to stars before (C-3PO, R2D2, BB8), but the other movies had the benefit of strong, engaging human characters around them. Rogue One just doesn’t do the business in that area, nor does it use them particularly well. One thing I did enjoy was Darth Vader’s appearances – though the planet where he resides seems squarely more Lord of the Rings than Star Wars.
When it comes to war movies that feature a team working together to achieve a goal, the best ones use the cast wisely as emotional high points. By this, I mean their deaths, of course. You build them up by making them relatable, then kill them off in order to further engage the audience at various moments along the way. In Rogue One, the cast are not used this sparingly so the movie suffers from a real lack of urgency, that single lives remain hugely important even amid the backdrop of war. It’s in this key point that Rogue One fails as a “war movie” – in addition to the fact that all battle scenes are really no different than any other Star Wars movie you’ve ever seen. X-Wing v TIE fighters, check. Stormtroopers and Rebels exchanging blaster fire, check. Gareth Edwards has come a ways since Monsters, but I didn’t find his Godzilla movie to be all that interesting – it seems to me that as a filmmaker, his pacing is off. Even while the digital effects team is going all out to create the eye candy of urgency, Edwards’s directorial style just seems lackadaisical, especially in scenes where there are no special effects to distract the eye.
One last thought about special effects – you’ve likely heard of the CGI-rendered Grand Moff Tarkin and (sorry if this a spoiler) Princess Leia – the former is more convincing than the latter, but both are distractingly obvious. I think photorealistic CGI humans are not yet with us, but I have to believe that a few more million (and a few more months lead time) in the budget would have produced better renders of both Cushing and Fisher, but these weren’t deal breakers for me, just highly noticeable.
My verdict here is that Rogue One, while a well-intentioned concept, and mostly well executed, is lacking in the emotional content that’s needed to really pull off this kind of movie. It’s different enough from the core franchise to lay hold to that claim, but I expect more than just enough.