Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One set something of an odd challenge for itself: A film about espionage and subterfuge residing in the anything but subtle Star Wars continuity. It's trying as hard as it can to set itself apart from other Star Wars films in tone, genre, and pacing. This is evident even in the title. This isn't "Star Wars", it's "A Star Wars Story". Given that I was hoping to see a more focused narrative driven by more nuanced and flawed characters. While the effort is evident, a lot of what Rogue One does still feels like business as usual in a galaxy far far away.
Rumors of an Imperial superweapon prompt the fledgling Rebel Alliance to seek the aid of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of the captive scientist responsible for designing it (Mads Mikkelson). Partnering with Rebel Intelligence Operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and accumulating a scrappy band of misfits along the way, they discover the horrifying scope of what the Empire is about to unleash on the galaxy and scramble to find some way to give hope in the face of overwhelming odds to a desperate Rebellion.
Rogue One is supposed to operate like a spy thriller, but too many of the beats are predictable. It constantly feels like the characters are running down a checklist rather than actually investigating or discovering anything. This is a sin on par with an action movie being boring, which is another problem this movie has. The battles often lack any real sense of danger, tension, or even necessity, merely settling for being big and loud. Sure, Star Wars is no stranger to large scale combat, but for this story, it feels shoehorned in, as if it's utterly impossible to tell any story in this universe that doesn't involve entire armies or fleets squaring off.
The characters are where this film enjoys both its greatest successes and failures. Individually, almost everyone turns in a great performance. The audience can tell who's who and what they're about initially, but after a while, the film just gets too crowded. By the third act, there are too many named characters to remember and figuring out their relationships to each other gets problematic. I don't need to know the details of everyone's backstory, but some explanation via subtext of how and why everyone is sticking around should be baked into the screenplay somewhere. Too many times they'd cut to a secondary character and I'd find myself asking why there were even there?
This failure to establish the characters, their relationships, and their motivations results in many of the heavy emotional beats ringing hollow and the character arcs being a bit shallow. A Star Wars film can get away with this, but since Rogue One aspires to break that mold, it doesn't get as easy a pass here. An example is the personal tension they try to construct between the primary antagonist and protagonist that sort of makes sense, but lacks any emotional depth.
This film has the disadvantage of being nested within the narrative of the other Star Wars films, so how everything turns out is something of a forgone conclusion. This presents a huge obstacle in generating any sort of dramatic tension. Rather than working hard to overcome this via narrowing the scale and investing more in the characters it feels like they gave up on even trying and instead, filled the movie with continuity nods and big action set pieces, then slapped a "dark and gritty" filter on it, and called it a day.
Focusing in on some other aspects, the CGI re-created characters from Episode IV would have almost held up if they weren't overused. Their presence quickly starts feels unnecessary, making me wonder why the filmmakers risked the distraction. Vader is portrayed as sufficiently imposing, but with how little they actually do with him and how loosely he ties in, it feels again like something shoehorned in to appease the fans. He should have either been given a more active role to play in the narrative or left out entirely. I will commend how this film addresses a long-standing issue with how Episode IV plays out, but I'll say no more here. You'll know when you see it.
Star Wars is at its best when it focuses in on a small group of well defined characters and tells their story in the context of a galaxy at war. This is the essential element of a Star Wars film that got lost in trying to do something different, while loading in enough familiar pieces so that you won't notice. Granted, it doesn't miss this mark on the scale of the prequel trilogy. Overall, they took a bold and commendable shot at re-defining what a Star Wars film can be that unfortunately deflected off the surface.