It’s hard to review something like Star Wars: Rogue One. On the one hand, I know how bad this franchise can get and I should be thankful that Rogue One doesn’t fall to those depths.
On the other hand, I know how good the franchise can be and know what mistakes it needs to avoid. Above all, a Star Wars film needs to tell a story that is going to engage its audience. Star Wars has always been about using the basics of storytelling and making them seem just as exciting as an ancient culture hearing The Odyssey for the first time.
I’m not convinced Rogue One tells such a story. We already know how the Rebel Alliance ended up with the Death Star plans. And the film can’t possibly have drama. We all know how it will end – the rebels will succeed and get the plans no matter what they face.
Still, I don’t want to dismiss Rogue One completely. As a spectacle, it has some fantastic moments. But is it necessary?
One of the best things about The Force Awakens was the new characters it introduced. Rogue One relies on even fewer existing characters in the franchise. We’re introduced to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been recruited by the Galactic Empire to held construct “the ultimate weapon.” Jyn escapes as a child and is raised by Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), an extremist rebel who thinks politics won’t be enough to dethrone Emperor Palpatine and his second in command Darth Vader. Fifteen years after her father is kidnapped, Jyn meets with Rebel Intelliegnce officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to find her father and steal the plans for the space station he was designing.
What I liked about these scenes and characters is that it showed life in The Empire. In the original film, we were mostly told about how evil Palpatine was and were never shown how daily life was affected by the presence of Stormtroopers everywhere. There are some great scenes of storm troopers demanding identification papers and scenes of skirmishes between the troopers and the rebels in the middle of crowded marketplaces. It’s obvious director Gareth Edwards studied The Battle of Algiers. I really enjoyed Jyn’s character arc. Her reasons for rebelling were clear and I wanted her to succeed in her quest.
But at the same time, I had a difficult time following who each character was and how they related to each other. Saw Gerrera was criminally underused. He’s meant to be a veteran of the clone wars and a sort of figure that is spoken of in hushed tones. But we don’t see him doing anything in the film and his philosophy is never explained. If the idea was that the Star Wars universe needed to be expanded, then Saw Gerrera represented a great opportunity to explore the Rebellion and how fractured the world was.
That never happened. I wouldn’t say it was because Rogue One wasn’t interested the more complex aspects of good vs evil in our world. I would say it’s only interested in getting to the start of A New Hope.
There’s so much potential wasted in the first two acts. We see Saw Gerrera torture someone to get information, setting up the conflict between his tactics and those who want to give politics a chance. But the film promptly forgets he does it and we never explore Saw Gerrera’s character again. We see Darth Vader at the height of the Empire as he threatens underlings and (in the best scene of the film) kills rebel soldiers. It’s fun, but we don’t learn anything about Vader we didn’t already know. We’re introduced to a would-be Jedi named Chirrut Imwe, who both connects the film to the samurai epics that inspired George Lucas and builds on the mythology of The Force. But the filmmakers don’t explore him or any potential connection with the Jedi Order.
There are so many potential doors open, but they get shut almost immediately so the film can get to the first trilogy.
Yet by the time we get to the third act, which directly leads to the opening of the original trilogy, Rogue One is exhilarating. During the last forty minutes, Rogue One takes on the tone of a classic war film like The Dirty Dozen or The Longest Day. We finally see what the “war” in Star Wars really meant. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Imwe walks through gunfire while chanting about The Force to ensure the mission succeeds.
Of course, I had to remind myself that I knew what would happen. Rogue One (the group that agrees to fetch the plans after the rebel leaders refuse to grant them permission) will succeed no matter what happens. There is drama in seeing which characters will survive the battle and I was emotionally invested when a character didn’t make it. But it was all for nought because I knew how the movie would end. It’s like watching a race when I already know who is go be to win. What they were thinking as they crossed the finish line may be intersstkng, but it doesn’t add any drama to the outcome.
I’m not sure why Rogue One exists. There are good elements here to ensure Star Wars fans will like it. But it doesn’t feel like the bright future The Force Awakens announced for the franchise. It felt like a cash in that doesn’t forward a narrative but exists to sell toys. I know Star Wars has always been a commercial enterprise, but the best films in the franchise will survive for generations because they put narrative first. Rogue One isn’t lazy, but it doesn’t escape the trap that almost all prequels are stuck in.