[Editor’s Note: The following review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story contains as few spoilers as possible, but it was necessary to describe or at least allude to certain aspects of this film in order to discuss it properly. If you are trying to go into this movie completely blind, you probably shouldn’t be reading any reviews at all. We invite you to come back after you have seen the film.]
It’s been 48 hours now since I’ve seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It hasn’t aged well. Gareth Edwards’ sci-fi fantasy adventure is designed to be a rousing return to the glory of Star Wars, evoking the classic original trilogy with epic action, gritty grit and fan service by the truck load, but even though you leave the theater pumping your fist in the air I suspect that a few days later your fist might be looking for something to punch.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story tells the tale of a ragtag band of misfits who stole the Death Star plans that Princess Leia had in her possession at the beginning of Episode IV – A New Hope. It’s an untold chapter of the original saga, rife with adventure and sacrifice, but by its very nature it is also a fill-in-the-blank experience. The ending is in many respects a foregone conclusion, and if you think about it, a lot of the parts in the middle would have to fit that description as well. There’s only so much room for innovation here, so the film plays a bit like Star Wars Mad Libs, running through a stock storyline with stock characters who each have one defining characteristic and, for the most part, no character development to speak of.
There’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a hero enlisted by the Rebels even though she wants no part of their war, but of course she’ll instinctively save a child from danger anyway to prove that she’s a hero even though she says she isn’t. She also has unresolved issues with her father figures, because of course she does. Jyn teams up with a Rebel intelligence officer who sometimes has to do unethical things but who will probably learn a valuable lesson. They team up with a smart-alecky robot who is great at everything. They also team up with a blind priest who is great at everything, and a former priest (apparently) who is great at everything but who will probably learn a valuable lesson. Finally, they team up with a former Imperial pilot whose motivations are never revealed, and who might have gone insane in an important plot point except the film completely forgets to follow up on that and so it may as well have never happened.
By now it’s worth noting that the original Star Wars was also based on sci-fi stories that were chockablock with two-dimensional characters. That’s pulp, and pulp is fun. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is often quite a bit of fun, and honestly I’m recommending it, if only as a three-star action movie. But I think it’s important to consider how the original Star Wars movies transcended their pulpy influences and how Rogue One gets mired in them. Rogue One is a movie about its plot, not its characters, and while that plot is fun it could have been spectacularly entertaining if the characters had been developed well enough that the audience knew how they all felt about that plot and each other, so that all of their badass actions meant something more than just “this is how Leia got the Death Star plans.”
Actually, let’s start here: compare Rogue One to films that typified the so-called “men on a mission” genre, like The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone. You’ll find that those World War II movies are full of characters who, on the surface, can often be boiled down to a single characteristic – because when you have a dozen characters, that’s a smart screenwriting maneuver – but that both films also allow their characters to interact with one another outside of the action sequences and the exposition, before the plot kicks in. The heroes may be stuck in a contrived situation but they are recognizable humans as opposed to badass avatars.
The original Star Wars may not be a “men on a mission” movie but it had a similar approach. The mission was to rescue the princess and destroy the Death Star, and yet the heroes had ample opportunity to express themselves and develop a rapport with each other and with the audience. George Lucas’s film didn’t assume the audience cared about these people. It put in the effort and made certain the audience cared. The characters in Rogue One are more like children’s playthings, toys with easily quantifiable selling points instead of plausible, emotional identities, shoved into one exciting situation after another and only permitted to feel things when the plot demands it.
Again, that’s not the worst thing the world. Lots of decent action movies get by on blunt storytelling. But the Star Wars series is desperately trying to branch out here, to expand in new and exciting directions. Episode VII – The Force Awakens also relied on memories of the original trilogy for much of its emotional content (even though it did a decent job of it), so maybe that’s why it’s so disconcerting that the second film in this supposedly reinvigorated franchise would feel even more like fan service. Rogue One is filled with callbacks and incidental characters whom fans will recognize from other installments in the series, and not very many of them are in this movie because they need to be. You could argue that they add flavor but you could also argue that they’re as awkwardly shoved into Rogue One as most of the foreshadowing was in the clunky prequel trilogy.
Take a look at the villainous side of things. Rogue One has a new antagonist in Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who has been overseeing the construction of the Death Star and who has an important, tragic role in Jyn Erso’s past. He’s an interesting, weasely, dangerous character, but he fills a rather obvious role as the villain we’ve never heard of who could conceivably be defeated, because we all know that the real masterminds behind the Empire – Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and The Emperor himself – will still be in power after this movie ends. (We know that, right? We’ve all seen Episode IV and so we don’t need to call that a spoiler?)
So at some point Rogue One has to deal with the elephants in the room; that is to say, at least one or two of those infamous, evil characters. But when they arrive, yikes. There’s an almost completely pointless scene where Orson Krennic visits a famous character just so that character can do their most famous thing and then make a terrible pun about it. Then there are multiple scenes of Orson Krennic interacting with a CGI character who is so embarrassingly produced that, even though you want to think it’s cool that you’re seeing this character at all, you can’t get the awkward memories of “young” Jeff Bridges in TRON: Legacy out of your head. We have a LONG way to go before photorealistic CG portrayals of human actors are possible, especially when they are placed right next to actual people. Maybe if this character had been kept in shadow or even slightly out of focus for dramatic effect the film could have gotten away with it, but as it stands it’s a lot like Chicken Boo. Good try, but you’re not actually fooling anyone in the audience.
And yet – and yet – this movie is pretty fun. It’s possible to criticize something, even a lot, and still basically like it. Rogue One is a fast-paced adventure with some cool action scenes, amusing quips, incredible cinematography, a kickass finale, and at least one moment of fan service that’s so unbelievably, mindblowingly perfect that it just makes you wonder why the rest of the movie couldn’t also be that good. That’s the thing, really. Star Wars has a reputation. The franchise is, as a whole, one of the great dreams of our era. It’s a detailed and engrossing alternate reality in which millions of people live, if only in their fantasies, and when it’s brilliant it’s absolutely brilliant and we should all be grateful for it. But when it’s merely a three-star action movie populated by two-dimensional characters, we should all keep a close eye on how that happened so it can be even better next time.
Top Photo: LucasFilm
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.