Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (3.5/5)
When Disney first announced that they were planning on taking the Star Wars IP (ugh) and submitting it to the Marvel model, where they produce one or more films a year, I was skeptical. As someone who grew up watching the original trilogy on TV and VHS, I felt there was something special about Star Wars, something that differentiated it from other big franchises. Sure, there were plenty of Star Wars material floating around outside of the main “Episodes”: comic books, novels, cartoons, video games, and even a soundtrack unencumbered by an actual film. And there’s been plenty of detritus within Star Wars, including terribly written novels, those Ewok movies, and the godawful holiday special. But these were easy to ignore because they weren’t meant to be experienced on the big screen. By pumping out a film every year, I reasoned, Disney was diminishing what made the experience of seeing a new Star Wars movie in theaters special.
The first of Disney’s anthology films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (okay, they’re still sticking with that subtitle), does a fine job of justifying the practice, even if it doesn’t completely quell my worries that the Disney machine will grind Star Wars to dust in order to suck out every last cent. The plot of Rogue One is extrapolated from a line from the original film, and the movie recycles much of the aesthetic, character motivation, and even the macguffin from A New Hope. Jyn Erso, the film’s protagonist, is a lapsed rebel who now finds herself jailed by the Empire. She’s broken out of a labor camp in order to aid the Rebellion. As a child, Jyn’s mother was killed and her father was pressed into service by the Empire to help build the Death Star, which means this is the fourth film featuring some version of the original superweapon.
But what the Rebellion really needs her for is to make contact with Saw Gerrera, a rebel extremist who leads a guerrilla cell on the planet of Jedha (for some reason the film flashes names of locations in the bottom corner of the screen like we’re watching a Jack Ryan thriller). Gerrera has come into possession of information regarding the Empire’s new superweapon. Jyn, her handler, Cassian Andor, and his surly droid, K2SO follow these breadcrumbs all the way the film’s impressive third act. Along the way they pick up a motley crew, including Imperial defector Bodhi Rook and odd couple Chirrut Îmwe, a Zatoichi archetype, and Baze Malbus.
Most of the characters are quickly sketched, which isn’t necessarily a problem. In the great superhero tradition, Baze Malbus is defined by that massive gun he totes around while his friend Chirrut Îmwe is mostly defined by actor Donnie Yen’s beatific smile. Jyn, played by Felicity Jones, serves as the main character, but her story arc seems incomplete, like a Jenga puzzle threatening to topple because of its missing parts. At one point she must give a rousing speech to the troops, mostly because she’s the protagonist, so of course she does. But Jones’s prim Britishness can’t quite sell the dialogue, and it makes you appreciate Jennifer Lawrence’s conviction to deliver whatever hokum was necessary in those Hunger Games movies.
Part of me wants to snark on Disney’s four-quadrant, tentpole filmmaking, but another part of me has to acknowledge that this film is the product of a well-oiled machine. Director Gareth Edwards nimbly directs the action, and the quips are delivered right on time. The antagonism between Jyn and K2SO provides one of the film’s chief delights. And when the movie turns into the Star Wars version of The Dirty Dozen, it’s easy to lose yourself in the spectacle. Rogue One contains a number of striking imagery of imagined planets and environments that the series is known for.
**SPOILERS AHEAD** And yet, I still felt like the movie never came together like it could have. I love the idea of making a Star Wars movie in the direct mold of those WWII movies from the 50s and 60s, but the need to connect this to A New Hope continually threatens to undermine Rogue One. The Easter eggs come at a regular clip. Some of these make sense. It’s great to see Bail Organa working with the Rebellion, and the glass of blue milk in the opening scene is an unobtrusive nod to Luke’s favorite drink on Tatooine. But do we really need to see Evazan and Ponda Baba bump into Jyn? (For those who weren’t into the habit of tracking down the names of obscure Star Wars characters in their youth, these are the dude with the messed up face and the walrus-looking fellow who pick a fight with Luke in Mos Eisley’s Cantina. Ponda Boba’s arm sees the wrong end of Obi-Wan’s lightsaber.) And while Darth Vader’s inclusion makes sense up to a point, the tacked on ending that connects the film unambiguously to A New Hope seems unnecessary and superfluous, as if Disney felt the audience wouldn’t realize these are the same Death Star plans mentioned in A New Hope. If anything, it undercuts the arc of the characters we’ve been following for two hours by reminding us that they’re just minor people in the grand scheme. Finally, I’m flummoxed by the inclusion of a creepy CGI version of Peter Cushing’s Tarkin. I’m sure there are sexagenarian actors who bear a resemblance to Cushing with the aid of the makeup department. Seriously, the image of CG Cushing is more ghoulish than anything found in those Hammer Horror films he starred in.
**SPOILERS CONTINUED** It’s nearly impossible to discuss your reaction to Rogue One without spending some time discussing the ending, so there are some even more ruinous spoilers in this paragraph. You were warned. Above, I likened this film to Star Wars’s Dirty Dozen, but this film attempts to one up that trash classic because no one survives. Every major character meets their end in the final assault, and Jyn and Cassian die while standing ankle deep in the ocean as a mushroom cloud balloons in the background, an image beautifully cribbed from the film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve gone back and forth between admiring this ending for its ability to smuggle such a bleak conclusion into a major blockbuster and thinking that the film never really earns this downer of a conclusion. Part of the problems is that following our heroes’ demise, there’s a coda that sees the Death Star plans make their way to a CGI Leia, unnecessarily connecting the dots between Rogue One and A New Hope and undermining the journey of the characters we’ve been following for two hours. The film never quite captures the acidic cynicism as The Dirty Dozen. It wants to be a gritty war film, but one that’s still fun for the family.
*SPOILERS CONTINUING* Additionally, I’m not sure the film ever really earns these deaths. There’s plenty of posturing in Rogue One about the kinds of sacrifices rebels must make in order to bring about change, but this is never really shown or discussed. I believe blockbuster movies can engage with complex topics, but there’s a difference between motioning towards complexity and actually engaging with complexity. (As an example, this difference can be seen in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises in which the former actually has something to say about terrorism where the latter’s attempt at broaching the topic of economic inequality is simply laughable). Earlier I mentioned The Dirty Dozen, but where that film gleefully deconstructs “the good war,” Rogue One never has the gumption to really show us these supposed ethical quandaries.
The big argument over Rogue One will likely be about whether or not the film is better than The Force Awakens. You could go back and forth on this question, outlining diagrams on the wall until they take you to a padded cell. I found them to be on the same level. When both films are working properly, they’re the kind of blockbuster entertainment spectacle that we go to the movies for. But they keep making unforced errors. The Force Awakens kills all momentum when Death Star 3.0 enters center stage. Rogue One likewise suffers when it bends over backwards to acknowledge the original trilogy or smuggle in a hero’s journey when the war film genre really should revolve around an ensemble cast. And while I like to avoid nitpicking, I think the inclusion of Peter CGIushing is simply unconscionable. Both films are good if ultimately unambitious. But I think Rogue One at least proves there’s some stock in the idea of creating anthology films. I just hope Disney figures out that not every film needs to tie directly into dialogue or characters from the original trilogy. It’s a big galaxy, after all. Let’s do something new.