The first in what will probably become an endless plethora of Star Wars spin-offs, Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebels came by the plans for the original Death Star. In some ways, Gareth Edwards and co. have it easy. After all, everything is set up for an epic caper, with an ending that’s already written. So it is that a ragtag bunch of rebels amongst Rebels – an outlaw, a spy, a turncoat pilot, two temple guards, and a sassy droid – go off in search of the weakness that can overcome the Empire’s devastating new weapon. It’s got a great cast, a supposedly proven director, and an audience prepped with huge swells of goodwill.
Easy peasy, right?
The trouble begins immediately. Rogue One really can’t decide if it wants to be a Star Wars film or not. The bait and switch that kicks things off is the first example of this. ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ pops up in familiar blue font. But there is no bombastic fanfare, and no scrolling text to follow. ‘Ooooh, look at me!’ says Rogue One. ‘Look how different I am!’ This does not last long.
Rogue One spends a good chunk of its first hour on a dusty desert planet, because that’s the way it’s always been done. The cinematography, the way this film is shot, is a direct homage to A New Hope itself. Edwards has said as much in previous interviews. The music keeps threatening to break into the love theme from the prequels, before abandoning all pretence once we get to Yavin 4, and bringing back the classics. By the end, the decision to not have the fanfare at the start becomes a complete anomaly – a gimmick for the sake of…what? Aesthetically, this film is banging on the doors of George Lucas’ house, begging to be part of the OG crew.
To be clear, it’s the inconsistency that irked me. The stylistic throwbacks in this film work so well that you begin to wonder why they didn’t just go the distance with it. Despite trying to make each frame look like it was shot in 1977, the retro wipes and transitions are absent, and the sombre tone of the film is reflected in gloomy palettes until the film’s final third and actually ushers some life into proceedings.
There are cameos everywhere. Ponda Baba and Dr. Cornelius Evazan (the thugs who start on Luke in the Mos Eisley Cantina) turn up on the streets of Jedha just so Jyn can literally bump into them. The Clone Wars’ Saw Gerrera is repurposed for no real reason except to pad the film’s first half. Digital wizardry brings Peter Cushing back from the dead, and it’s actually amazing, but this only really serves to underline how utterly risible Director Krennic is as chief villain. Darth Vader turns up too, but his physical screen presence is terrible. If anything, Rogue One is proof that David Prowse’s work as Vader was criminally underrated.
By the final third, Rogue One has clearly abandoned all efforts to try and stand on its own. Instead, the film blends elements from A New Hope into the mix, reaching back in time to pluck pilots (and footage) from the original Death Star battle to give things some sort of continuity. Again, this actually makes perfect sense, and works incredibly well. The appearances of Mon Mothma, Bail Organa, General Dodonna fit within the cinematic world of Star Wars, and lend credence to canonical continuity. But it makes the inconsistency of the film’s first two-thirds that much more irritating.
Given that Rogue One is a film that (admirably) has no qualms with killing off its ensemble towards the end, it makes no sense that we spend half of the film following pointless objectives and gathering each member of the crew one by one. A far better move would have been to start the film with the team assembled, giving us more opportunities to learn about them and their characters through interactions with one another. There’s a lot of talk about ‘dreams’ and ‘the cause’ in this film, but we don’t really see it. The atrocities in Rogue One are by-the-numbers villainy, bereft of emotional weight, lacking the impact of Alderaan’s destruction, or even Shmi Skywalker’s treatment at the hands of the Tuskan Raiders.
Let’s take the prologue as an example. Our first introduction to this new chapter in the Star Wars universe is a dubious mess of accents as young Jyn Erso sees her mother murdered on the orders of the least impressive Imperial officer ever. Krennic is a weedy bureaucrat, frequently appearing as though his cloak might swallow him whole, and his threats are shrill. All this does is tell us that Krennic is supposed to be evil, that Mads Mikkelsen is a human MacGuffin, and that we’re supposed to feel bad for Jyn. But we don’t know her. We don’t care at this point. It doesn’t mean anything, not really.
The great thing about A New Hope is that we get to spend some time seeing the universe through Luke’s eyes. We go on his everyday journey, we go shopping for droids, and we feel his restlessness and dissatisfaction with life in the Outer Rim. It works because the universe is so new to us as viewers, that we form a natural parallel – his innocence (and ignorance) is reflected in us and (eventually) perfectly counter-balanced by his sage mentor, the world-weary Captain Solo, and the well-travelled Princess Leia. When his personal tragedy finally comes, it’s shocking and brutal and burned into our minds. That’s how you build a protagonist.
But Jyn is barely the main protagonist of this story. The script seems scared to let her take over much of anything. Felicity Jones is rarely allowed to let loose, and when she does get some meaty lines, they fall flat because the film hasn’t really given us much reason to care about her.
Jyn is not alone in this. For an ensemble movie, the characters here rarely get to say or do anything of real note. The script is mediocre to say the least. It never gets quite as utterly dreadful as some of Hayden Christensen’s lines in Attack of the Clones, but the speeches here are flat, the dialogue hollow and uninspired, and even Alan Tudyk’s sassy droid has some lines that bomb horribly, despite his best efforts. Donnie Yen is cool as the blind, nearly-Jedi monk, but that’s because Donnie Yen taking people out in acrobatic fashion is nearly always cool. But there are no air-punching moments that come organically. Nothing to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Only at the very end, as the determination of Jyn and Cassian (Diego Luna) drives them to best dire odds, with battle swirling all about them, does Rogue One finally burst into life. Only then do we really feel the urgency behind this mission. And then it’s snuffed out by Tarkin’s laser-spitting-fake-moon. It’s telling that of all of the individuals in this film, the one played by a dead man has the most character and flair.
Rogue One is war tale that seems disinterested in its own war for the most part. It’s a purportedly ‘dark’ tale that never bothers to look into the heart of that darkness, and it’s a Star Wars film mostly bereft of magic and verve. If you’re looking for lazy fan service, this will possibly delight you. If all you need is a checklist of nods and winks back to previous nooks and crannies of the Star Wars universe, then Rogue One provides. But if you want an ensemble, sci-fi caper of sorts, then you’re better off rewinding all the way to 1977 or firing up Guardians of the Galaxy. James Gunn, Chris Pratt and co. showed the world how to deliver a 21st-century, ensemble space opera, action fest with memorable characters. But you’ve got to have a cracking script and a director with vision.
Rogue One, it seems, has neither.