Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

Posted: December 19, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

rogue-one-posterWritten by Daniel Simpson

I think it’s fair to say Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a massive success for Disney. I wouldn’t call The Force Awakens a masterpiece, I wouldn’t even call it a great movie, but it did successfully show that the franchise was in good hands and indicated a positive future for the main storyline. And of course, it also made a billion dollars. For all that success though, Disney still has some other tests to pass. In addition to making new episodes in the main Star Wars narrative, Disney has also opted to make spin-off films in the years between films that tell other stories on the universe. On one hand, this could lead to some really cool and unique stories that don’t quite fit in the main narrative but nonetheless offers some interesting stories worth telling. On the other hand, one can’t help but be suspicious that these spin-offs just offered a way for Disney to make a quick buck while maintaining brand loyalty between the “real” Star Wars movies. Because of this, a lot of responsibility falls on the first of these spin-offs, titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The film is set very shortly before the events of the original Star Wars at the tail end of the construction of the Death Star. The chief architect of the project (Mads Mikellsen) was coerced into working with the empire following threats against his family. His young daughter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has become a petty criminal who is in captivity when the movie starts. Given her close connection to the Death Star, the Rebellion sees fit to bust Jyn out in an effort to get close to her father. She’s partnered with rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the two begin a mission that will culminate with efforts to seize the blueprints to the Death Star.

If The Force Awakens was Disney’s promise that this is indeed the Star Wars fans have come to love, Rogue One is Disney’s effort to test the waters a bit while not straying too far from the iconography that defines the series. This storyline is obviously steeped in Star Wars lore and thus features a lot of classic Star Wars visuals and elements which are integrated well (along with some cringey fan-service which is not integrated so well). Tonally though, this is a very different beast from the rest of the Star Wars films. Rogue One is basically a war movie and it is a lot more dour than you might expect. The film has a darker look, the characters have all experienced tragedy, and there’s a real sense of weight to the battle sequences. Despite the fact that we as an audience know the Death Star is ultimately destroyed, there is still tension because these characters are just soldiers and expendable.

The fact that this movie does something different with its structure and tone is certainly admirable, particularly after how safe The Force Awakens played things, but does Rogue One work as a film? Not entirely. The central problem is the script, which fails to really develop its characters and also squanders a lot of narrative potential even though all the ingredients are theoretically there. Jyn, for example, is clearly meant to be something of a hardened criminal who only cares about herself, and it’s also clear what the course of her arc is supposed to be. The thing is, while the broad details are all there, none of this is ever really felt. I never really bought Jyn as a selfish criminal and I certainly didn’t buy her transformation. This is not to speak ill of Felicity Jones, who does a commendable job with the material, but there are just not enough scenes for the audience to really get to know this character. The same can be said for Diego Luna’s Cassian. There are hints at an interesting past, but it’s never really explored and on the whole the character feels bland, despite my excitement at seeing Diego Luna leading a big-budget action movie.

There are also a lot of ideas which just aren’t explored adequately. Early on, there are implications that the Rebellion, though noble in intention, are essentially terrorists and that their actions do have some serious ethical implications. That’s an interesting idea, certainly one that wasn’t explored at all in the original trilogy, but nothing ever really comes of that. Similarly, there’s some hints at what life under the tyrannical rule of the empire is like, but I feel there could have been more material in this regard. Finally, there is the character of Saw Gerrera, an old-school war veteran who is also an extremist that the Rebellion have distanced themselves from. He also has a cool like and is played very well by the great Forrest Whitaker. But ultimately the character doesn’t really do much and is kind of a waste. Apparently the character was featured heavily on the Clone Wars cartoon series to fans of that might get a kick out of his appearance, but then again they might actually be a little bit pissed off given how pointless he is and how he’s handled.

For all its problems, Rogue One does come together like gangbusters in the third act. This section involves efforts to infiltrate an empire base and steal the plans which eventually evolves into a full-scale battle involving ground troops with lots of fire power and a space battle, along with smaller scale espionage efforts. These scenes would be more impactful with stronger characters, but none the less these sections do work really well. The action is all very well-orchestrated and also uses classic Star Wars elements to interesting effect. The various elements are also connected really well and it’s exciting to watch the various machinations involved. Perhaps most importantly though, there really is a sense of weight and sacrifice to the action on screen. Gareth Edwards handled this material so well that, despite my lack of interest in the characters, I was still really invested. This third act also features a really stellar scene involving Darth Vader. Is it a bit fan-servicey? Maybe, but it’s also a really thrilling and well-executed moment that really emphasizes how scary Vader is.

So what does Rogue One say about the future of these anthology Star Wars films? Honestly, the jury is still out. The film certainly takes some chances which seem to suggest these films will provide new elements (even if there is also a decent amount of pandering here), but the execution is also a little lacking. In particular, I think the main problem with Rogue One is that the script was a little rushed. All of the ideas are good and I can see a really cool Star Wars movie coming from these ingredients, but it never really comes together. A couple more rewrites really could have tightened things up, but these films need to be ready annually and if these anthology films are gonna be rushed I expect we might see a similar pattern moving forward. That’s all speculation, and I can’t say for sure that the screenplay was rushed in this case, though the multiple different writers involved and the subsequent reshoots suggest there is validity to this theory. Bigger picture thoughts and behind the scenes speculation aside, I can say that Rogue One is a well-made action movie that eventually gets really awesome, but it also falls short of all it could be. It’s still a good enough watch, and I imagine those Star Wars fans (you know the ones) will love it regardless, but for me, my enthusiasm is only moderate.

B-

Comments
  1. brikhaus says:

    Sounds like the script could have used another year to re-write and polish. That’s the problem with these release dates being announced before a script is written.

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