As a huge Star Wars fan and someone who rushed out of my office on an early lunch break to buy the new Rogue One toys, last night was a painful experience for me. I was an ardent defender of The Force Awakens and will even go to bat that there’s something good to be found in the prequels. I’ve invested hours into EA’s disastrous Star Wars MMO, blindly purchased and defended the new Battlefront, and own a pair of tacky Star Wars slip-ons. I say all of this not to establish my nerd-cred, but to really contextualize how easy it would be for me to like an even passable Star Wars movie. Because the truth of the matter is that, on its face, Rogue One is a damn disappointment.
There was a moment of transformation for me during the film’s second act where I started having an internal dialogue. “Holy shit,” I thought, “they’re Marvel-izing Star Wars in every sense of the word.” It’s not that this revelation was completely new to me. It’s that I had always assumed that, somehow, Star Wars would be immune from the printed money hollowness that plagued a good portion of the Marvel movies. I wanted to love this film. I did love The Force Awakens, and was prepared to defend this one as well. However, it would be wholly disingenuous of me to sit here and do that after I was more than happy to give the Marvel cinematic universe its fair share of flagellation.
It’s not that Rogue One was an entirely cynical cinematic exercise. One of the brightest spots is that Alan Tudyk’s performance as K-2SO produces one of the best characters in the entire Star Wars canon. It’s clear that some of his inspiration came from the fantastic character of HK-47 from BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, and I’ve been clamoring for a big screen version of the character for a long time. The wry sarcasm coming from the droid is always a pleasing reprieve, and K-2SO has more emotion and personality in his LED eyes than the rest of the cast has in its entirety. K-2SO gives the movie almost all of its life and vibrance. When he protests Jyn Erso’s inclusion in the Rebel Alliance mission, he resigns himself to his role and shrugs, “What do I know? My specialty is just strategic analysis.” This droid sputters and stutters when put on the spot, giving him more humanity than the human characters.
Similarly, there’s a brief bright spot provided by the buddy-cop vibe between Chirrut and Baze (played over the top by Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang). Chirrut is a religious nut who still believes in the Force, and his “force sensitivity” is played mostly for laughs. He jumps into battle, blind, against an overwhelming amount of enemies and it’s up to Baze to shoulder his heavy weapons and pull Chirrut out of danger yet again. Of course, when all ends well, Chirrut thanks the Force, leaving Baze to just roll his eyes and sigh. This kind of lighthearted banter gives the otherwise plodding story some small moments of life.
Gareth Edwards, who brought Godzilla back to life in 2014, clearly had a goal in mind with Rogue One to remind people that Star Wars is ostensibly about a war. This is the most “graphic” depiction of the war that we’ve seen, though it’s still PG-13 by nature. People are executed by blaster at close range, blown in the air like a ragdoll by explosive blasts, and gunned down mercilessly as wave after wave of infantry pour into battle. There’s a hidden movie here about the horrors of war simply translocated into a galaxy far, far away. Edwards uses “in the trenches” cinematography techniques to put us in the battle, and for certain stretches of the movie, you can almost feel the fear these nameless heroes are facing. There are even moments where characters are able to debate which side is actually the good side. After all, both sides seem to indiscriminately kill innocents in order to achieve their objective. Is there really a true hero? These are questions I wish the film had grappled with a bit more, because there’s something interesting about taking a beloved IP like Star Wars and using the three decades it has been in the public consciousness to reflect on the nature of the story itself. However, Edwards never quite gives us a full meal. Those themes get no chance to breathe as we’re whisked away to our next Very Expensive Setpiece. The final act of the film, however, is exhilarating. It feels a little tired because we’ve seen things like it before, but the sequences here are still mostly fresh and give us a vehicle through which to experience those familiar Star Wars moments in a new light.
It would be easier to just say “everything else” here and call it a day, but I’ll try to be more specific.
The characters fall completely flat and feel more like generic NPCs you pick up in an RPG rather than fleshed out characters. Baze is there to be the heavy weapons guy, and Bohdi is there to be the tech guy/pilot, and Chirrut is there to be the martial arts zen master. Bohdi is a fucking turncoat from the Empire… how cool is that! And how sad it is we learn absolutely nothing about him other than those facts. As I sat around after the film and tried to describe these characters, I found myself floundering. Bohdi was a pilot. Baze and Chirrut were some kind of monks that used different weapons. Director Krennic was mini-Tarkin. The only character who gets any kind of fleshing out is Mads Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso, and he has very little screen time to account for it. It’s possible the limited backstories were an attempt by Gareth Edwards to contribute to the feeling of being a “war movie” where each person is just another number in yet another battalion. If that was the goal, it was half-assed, because it doesn’t come through at all in the final product. Instead we’re left wondering why we’re supposed to care about these characters.
The film also suffers from having two rather unlikable leads. I don’t want to knock Felicity Jones or Diego Luna, who do the best they can with the script they had. But very early on in the film, during Cassian’s introductory sequence, we’re shown that he is a shrewd, ruthless pragmatist who will murder a source in cold blood in order to further the Rebellion’s goals. (Tangent: why did Cassian even need to kill his informant? It seems mean for the sake of being mean. Perhaps he’d be caught by the Empire, but so what? Are we to believe it was an act of mercy?) Cassian is introduced as a more amoral version of Han Solo, one who will actually kill and steal and rape in order to achieve his goals, but that Machiavellian streak disappears complete. Note to writers: simply showing us a character at point A then later showing us a character at point B does not make a character arc. Cassian’s ruthlessness is never revisited, and I was left wondering why we wasted time with it at all. He doesn’t do much, emotionally, and the chemistry between Luna & Jones just isn’t there.
Then we have Jyn Erso. The film is ostensibly her story, and yet, we never get a good sense of her. Sure, she was abandoned as a kid when the Empire came along and kidnapped her father… but that seemingly had no impact on her personality. We’re lead to believe that finding her father is some cathartic experience for her, and yet, when asked why she didn’t bother looking for him for fifteen fucking years, Jyn snarls, “It was easier to just assume he was dead.” This kind of faux-coldness plagues Jyn Erso from the start. How are we supposed to care what the hell she’s doing when she refuses to show emotion? Jyn’s entire role is just not caring about anything. She doesn’t care about the Empire’s rise and implies she can get along fine without it. She doesn’t care about the Rebellion (and seemingly justifies this apathy retroactively with an event that happens midway through the film). She doesn’t care about her father and just assumes he’s dead — except wait, she does care — except wait, if she does care, why don’t we see any sign of that during the buildup? Jyn Erso is a character designed by too many hands. She’s a corporate, focus-tested response to a perceived market need for a “different” kind of female character in the Star Wars universe. In the few scenes she’s in, Mon Mothma is able to exude every quality that Jyn is trying to display, but Genevieve O’Reilly steals the scene while Felicity Jones slinks into the background.
Fan service runs rampant. With The Force Awakens, we had nostalgia, but it was delivered in a way that respected the original and paid homage while setting up and forging its own identity. It was not cheap callbacks for the sake of applause. But, oh boy, does Rogue One deliver cheap callback after cheap callback. There are no less than FOUR original trilogy characters that pop up here, and two of those are portrayed via really creepy CGI to emulate the age/look of the actors circa-original trilogy. In thinking it over in my head, there’s absolutely no reason those characters had to even be in the film. They aren’t crucial to the plot or could easily be written out without the film suffering. They’re here simply to try and win favor with fans of the series for the hell of it. Director Krennic, the film’s “villain” (if you can even call him that) is just a knockoff of Grand Moff Tarkin. But then, to even further diminish Krennic’s presence, Tarkin shows up anyway. I’m torn on Darth Vader’s appearance in the film. On the one hand, how fucking cool is it to see Darth Vader show up and wreck shit again? (The answer is really, really cool.) On the other hand, Vader makes a dad joke/pun while tormenting another character. That’s right: Darth Vader, master of the cold and calculated, makes a stupid pun while force choking someone. Because, you know, obviously that’s exactly the type of shit Vader did in the originals, right?
And all of this doesn’t even get to the plot, which is obviously a result of too much focus group testing. It follows the tired Marvel plot model: brief setup, then a series of elaborate set pieces interwoven with expository “character moments” that are supposed to serve the dual purpose of filling us in on the plot while growing the character. It simply does not work here, and it especially falls flat because of the “your princess is in another castle” nature of the plot. Jyn needs to introduce the Rebels to a crazy rogue warlord. Done– but wait, now she needs to find her dad! Done– but wait, now she needs to tell the Rebel leaders about the Death Star. Done– but wait, nobody believed her and now she needs to go capture the plans herself. It’s these tired tropes that litter the plot and leave you just wishing the movie would get to the fucking point already.
I wanted this to be good. I wanted Rogue One to show people that the Star Wars spinoff films could be something great instead of a cheap cash grab. As much as it pains me to say, the cynics were mostly right. I’m baffled at how a collection of such talent — Gareth Edwards, Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Michael Giacchino, etc. — could mess it up this bad. I can only assume that we’re in the early phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe here where Kathleen Kennedy and Lucasfilm are meddling too much in the projects. I’m hoping the studio can recognize where it went wrong and grow from it, because I would hate to see the Han Solo film turn out this poorly. There are brief moments of life, here, and it’s definitely packed with cool nods for those Star Wars geeks out there that tie it into the original and prequel trilogies in a cool way. But it just feels like a hollow experience, in the end.
Will Hare is a web marketing and digital media professional residing in Durham, NC. When he’s not on the job, he likes to consume and critique board games, video games, films, and television.