A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are the sacred texts of the Star Wars universe. Every bit of Star Wars that has emerged in the wake of those first three films – sequels, prequels, midquels, comics, T.V. shows, holiday specials, video games, trading cards, action figures, and commemorative plates – is indebted to the franchise’s holy trinity. And each of them no matter what their claim to originality or expansion, echoes, references, and yes, even rhymes with those instigating incidents. For as wide and wooly as the famed galaxy far far away has become over the years, the creators and collaborators who work in Star Wars are forever filling in the gaps left by those all-important lodestones of the franchise.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the peak of this gap-filling mentality brought to bear. The film is inextricably tied to Episode IV, taking great pains to connect the events depicted in this movie with those of its hallowed predecessor, even when it gets in the way of telling Rogue One’s own story. Because of that, Rogue One comes off more like pandering than as a novel extension of the Star Wars universe. It’s a film desperate to remind you of what comes next in the timeline, without regard for whether any of the harbingers it presents genuinely add anything to the story being told here and now or the story we already know.
It’s a shame, because beneath the film’s frantic attempts to signal where it fits into the grand Star Wars pantheon, there’s a solid, if unspectacular standalone tale. Rogue One tells the story of the motley individuals responsible for stealing the plans for the Death Star, which is the catalyst for the events of A New Hope. Taken apart from the ways in which that narrative is relegated to being mere setup for what’s to come, it presents a unique, hardscrabble slice of the larger Star Wars story.
For all its strengths, so much of the Star Wars universe inevitably comes down to the binary of two warring factions: the Rebels and the Empire, the Republic and the Separatists, the Jedi and the Sith. What makes Rogue One unique is its focus on those who are outside of that dichotomy. Most of the individuals we meet are perfectly happy to buck up against the Empire when it suits them, but are not so eager to thumb their noses at this overwhelming force simply for the pursuit of truth, justice, and the midi-chlorian way. Rogue One’s characters exist in a gray area that’s rarely explored in the franchise.
There’s merit in that approach. The problem is that the film stumbles considerably in telling these people’s story, or any sort of complete story for that matter. Rogue One is less a full and robust narrative – one that, ideally, builds and progresses and culminates at just the right time – and more a mere series of moments, most of which only bear a mild relation to one another. Some of those moments are very cool. A handful of them are even thrilling. But taken together, they don’t amount to something cohesive and complete, and the film suffers for it.
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Rogue One’s efforts are also hampered by the uninspired qualities of its major characters. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the film’s protagonist, is mainly a cipher, whose informed attributes overwhelm any actual personality that comes from the character. We learn her backstory: She’s a de facto orphan (why is it always orphans with Star Wars?); she has abandonment issues that have driven her to apathy; and she’s a survivor. But her emotional journey in the film is underdeveloped, and Jones fails to breathe enough life into the role on her own to overcome that fact.
Jyn reconnects, however briefly or ephemerally, with those she’s lost, and seems to learn something about a commitment and a love that transcends separation or seeming abandonment. But the connection between that mild revelation and her sudden commitment to the greater good is thin at best, and mostly serves as a light texture for the major fireworks to come. That keeps Rogue One playing from behind from the beginning of the film.
The same goes for the film’s other lead, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the hardened Rebel fighter who initially collars Jyn. As written, Cassian should be a compelling character, one who operates in the moral gray area previous (technically future) rebels have eschewed. In contrast to the purity exhibited by the members of the Rebel Alliance in A New Hope, Cassian is not above killing allies and bystanders when it suits his purposes. Early in the film, he blows away an informant who gets too panicky, and as it was for his scruffy cinematic predecessor, the character’s introduction leaves no ambiguity as to who shot first.
But Luna gives a flat performance as Cassian, to the point that the character feels like a lifeless drone, lurching about simply to move the narrative along, but only feigning some deeper emotional drive. That approach can work for this type of character, who’s seen too much and grown detached and jaded, but Rogue One never takes the time to dig deeper into the character or sell his story in a way that makes his presence here meaningful.
That leaves Rogue One’s side characters as the only genuinely compelling personalities in the film. Chief among these are Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), a pair of force-worshipping monks, and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) a reprogrammed imperial droid with a dry wit.
The former make for a particularly interesting pair. Îmwe quickly makes an impression as a blind-but-true believer, who trusts in the force and demonstrates the strength of that belief in his impressive talents with a bow and in his acts of faith. Baze nicely compliments his partner as the lapsed adherent who’s also quick with a futuristic chain gun. He’s a reluctant combatant, but a protective friend. And for his part, K2 is practically the exclusive source of humor in the film, providing unexpected bits of heart as well.
It may be the character quirks or the well-done performances, but these individuals stand out as the only new personalities involved who bring a real spark to Rogue One. Nearly everyone else, from Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker, making some deliberate but odd choices in the role) to Galen Ersa (Mads Mikkelsen who, for the second time this year, elevates the shallow material his character receives) is lost in a sea of heavily underlined cameos and ham-fisted hints at what comes next.
CAUTION: The remainder of this review contains significant spoilers for Rogue One.
While it’s fun (if contrived) to see minor characters like Ponda Baba and Evazan pop up here and there, Rogue One is awash in nigh-pointless appearances from better known characters. C-3PO and R2-D2 pop up for a moment to deliver a quick but superfluous dose of their usual banter. A scene with Darth Vader and the film’s antagonist, Director Krennic, serves little purpose beyond allowing the Sith Lord to show off his standard parlor trick and deliver a corny pun. Bail Organa (the only significant representation the Prequels receive here) also appears in order to participate in awkwardly-worded exchanges about Obi Wan Kenobi. Of all these cameos, only Grand Moff Tarkin (an impressive, digitally revivified Peter Cushing) feels at all significant to the plot of this film and not just some sop to fans hoping to see their old favorites.
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In the wake of this fan service, the film putters along through clumsy, exposition-ridden exchanges; stolid, eye-roll worthy scenes; and convenient, uninspiring developments. Little of it descends to the level of being outright bad. Everything in the film is competently done. Almost everyone has a clear motivation. And the progression of events makes rough sense. Rogue One just offers little reason to be invested in any of it.
Until, that is, Rogue One gets to its rollicking finale and suddenly finds a second gear. The film’s climax features an epic battle that spans three settings – a raucous dogfight in space, a guerilla battle on the ground, and a race against time to recover the Death Star plans within an imperial facility – and the film picks up considerably once that happens. In fact, Rogue One’s extraordinary race to the finish nearly justifies all the stumbles and flaws on the way to that point in the film. There is a vibrancy and an urgency to the rigors of war, the thrill of the fight, and the weight of the sacrifice in the film’s final frame that are all but missing in the first two-thirds of the movie.
Those orbital dogfights live up to the best intergalactic combat in the franchise’s history. While far busier than the famous run on the Death Star in A New Hope and more varied than the fight in Return of the Jedi, the interplanetary combat portion of Rogue One brings creativity and visual flair to the fore. The “hammerhead corvette” move to ram one star destroyer into another is not only a stunning image in and of itself, but represents the sort of desperation and lateral thinking that gives the Rebel Alliance a legitimate chance to overthrow the adversaries who would otherwise overwhelm and outmatch them.
Similarly, the efforts on the ground among Îmwe, Baze, and the defecting imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed, who is fine but, again, feels underdeveloped and lacking in personality relative to his robotic and Jedi Temple-defending counterparts) against the invading stormtrooper army are unique among Star Wars action sequences. The beachside setting alone makes the battle feel distinct from others in the franchise.
And it’s in that setting that Rogue One starts to feel like a war movie in a way that no other Star Wars film has. The images of the troopers storming the beaches, of firefights back and forth and explosions happening at all angles, create a visceral sense of the struggle here. It produces a film more committed to the realities and casualties of conflict than the high space fantasy of the original trilogy.
But, as with the rest of the film, the part focusing on Jyn and Cassian is the weakest facet of the finale. Their quest to obtain the Death Star plans amounts to an encounter with a souped-up claw machine and devolves into a standard cat and mouse game that lacks the immediacy or excitement of the other two parts of the grand fight. But even that segment of the film’s climax is saved by a cohesiveness and common purpose among the three distinct battle zones that makes each individual fight feel like a part of the larger struggle.
In contrast to even George Lucas’s films, Rogue One does a superior job at weaving the various conflicts in the film’s climax into one unified whole. The quest to transmit the Death Star plans involves combatants at all levels. K2 seals the doors and holds off stormtroopers. Jyn and Cassian nab the data tapes and upload them to the Empire’s transmitter. Bodhi connects the comlink; the monks throw the master switch, and the spaceships in the sky break the Empire’s massive planetary shield, thereby allowing the all-important transmission through. Everyone has a part to play, with a clear progression in how their actions impact the larger goal, creating a sense of place that’s missing elsewhere in the film and occasionally in the franchise writ large.
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But it’s what happens next that offers Rogue One’s boldest stroke, and which also shows its limitations as a spinoff. Rogue One is the first Star Wars anthology film, the first movie set in this universe that isn’t a part of the larger saga, that lacks an episode designation, and that does not focus on the Skywalkers and their assorted offspring and allies. That gives it a unique opportunity to take stories in this expansive and wide open universe and tell them without the larger world- and franchise-building constraints that come with the main saga.
Rogue One takes that opportunity to do something that the other films in the Star Wars franchise wouldn’t, and in many cases couldn’t do – kill off its entire cast. It’s a gutsy move, but one done artfully. One-by-one, every major character receives their moment in the sun, engaging in some act of valor or defiance in pursuit of the larger goal and then paying the ultimate price for it.
These scenes are the most heart-rending in the film, and the ones that feed into the larger theme of Rogue One more than any other – the idea that smaller, harsher, and more personal sacrifices made the epic space opera of A New Hope and its successors possible. There is a power in the way that this film follows through on the stakes it lays out; in the way it embraces the hardship and devastation that had to take place for Luke’s triumphant moment to happen; in the way it closes with Jyn and Cassian, locked in a Watchmen-esque embrace, in the face of annihilation.
And that’s really where the film should have ended, with our heroes having achieved their goal but suffering the most devastating of consequences in doing so. It’s admittedly a bit of a down note to end the film on, but it’s an equally triumphant one as well where, yes, people suffer for their cause, but also advance it in an immeasurable way in the process.
Instead, Rogue One bends over backwards to tie the ending of this film to the beginning of A New Hope, messing with the pacing and punch of its closing parry in the process.
In fairness, the ensuing scene where Darth Vader remorselessly slays a room full of rebels, all of them utterly powerless to resist him and each trying desperately to send the data tapes on, is the coolest and most menacing the character has looked on the silver screen since The Empire Strikes Back. There’s an awe-inspiring combination of ruthlessness and effortlessness in the way Vader attacks his prey, and the virtuoso fashion in which this tremendous sequence is choreographed, shot, and edited almost justifies its inclusion in film alone.
The film’s actual closing scene is more of a misstep, with an unnervingly CGI’d young Princess Leia painfully underlining the film’s mantra in a strained attempt to end a dark movie on a positive note. In contrast to the aged Tarkin, whose weathered face hides some of the seams of the computerized facelift, Young Leia quickly drifts into the uncanny valley, already starting a clunky and unnecessary scene off on the wrong foot.
But that issue aside, her appearance still amounts to another pandering cameo, which speaks more to the other films in the series than one at hand. And to boot, it features another cheesy line about “hope” in a script that couldn’t be more obvious about its message if Director Gareth Edwards personally elbowed each audience member in the side every time that word was used. It’s a testament to the many ways in which Rogue One is constantly tying itself to what came before and what comes next, rather than Edwards and the film’s creative team allowing the movie to stand on its own.
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To be fair, some of the justifications I offered for The Force Awakens’s familiarity – something that’s been held against the film since its release – apply here as well. Rogue One is trying something brand new – a spinoff that is not a direct part of the continuing Star Wars saga. Perhaps Kathleen Kennedy and the powers that be at Disney and Lucasfilm felt that when wading into such uncharted waters, they needed to loudly and explicitly tie Rogue One to the main story of the franchise, appealing to even the most casual of casual moviegoers, to help get the film off the ground. In that sense, Rogue One not only works as a recognizable introduction into this brave new world of spinoffs and side stories, but those shout outs also help to demonstrate that these films are still “real Star Wars,” and as present and vital to the franchise as any movie fronted by a Jedi.
But these anthology films are also a chance for the cinematic branch of the Star Wars universe to do what its televised counterparts, The Clone Wars and Rebels have been doing for years – use this familiar backdrop to tell different types of stories, to explore characters and settings in ways that would otherwise clash with the spirit of the main series of films, and to find corners of the Star Wars universe that are not beholden to the adventures of the Skywalker family or the story that started it all.
The core of these aspirations is present in Rogue One, with unique elements and bold choices that stand to distinguish this first anthology film from its episodic brethren. But too often, the film gives into fan service, or shoehorned inter-film connections, or familiar beats, that make the movie feel more like Episode III & ½ than its own Star Wars story.
The galaxy described in that famous opening crawl stretches far and wide. Rogue One presents a number of very cool moments within that galaxy – waterside warfare, bow-wielding grace, and merciless Sith brutality – but they never transcend existing as a mere disconnected collection of moments outside of the film’s high-intensity third act. So often, Rogue One is simply filling in the gaps of the story that’s already been told in that galaxy, rather than expanding it. The result is a missed opportunity and a film that, for all its merits, could have been, and almost was, so much more than just a pit stop on the way from revenge to hope.