“Rebellions are built on hope.”
At least that’s what Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) tells Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) early on in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The two are butting heads with one another over their respective lots in life: he’s the Rebel Alliance’s trusty Intelligence officer while she’s the estranged daughter of the guy who designed the Death Star. Naturally, that latter attribute hasn’t afforded Erso much of an existence for herself, at least not one with the “luxury of political opinions,” but she’s starting to come around. In fact, everyone’s starting to come around in Gareth Edwards’ intergalactic war drama.
Make no mistake, Rogue One isn’t your average Star Wars adventure, and that’s sort of the point. Disney’s first anthology film — which, in this case, is more or less a clever way of ignoring the “prequel” designation — attempts to be a brazen, gritty outlook on their blockbuster galaxy from far, far away. There are stakes. There are consequences. There is death. Unlike last year’s punchy The Force Awakens, this is a dark and sobering meditation on the collateral damage and sacrifices that happen offscreen while we’re busy cheering on Jedis and laughing it up like a bunch of fuzzballs.
Edwards has a penchant for this stuff, though. His 2014 reboot of Godzilla thrived with all sorts of war-torn carnage, and despite reports of lengthy re-shoots involving Tony Gilroy this past summer, Edwards’ treacherous magic remains intact. His attention to scope when it comes to battle is hands down the strongest facet of Rogue One. The way he gracefully pans from gutsy hand-to-hand combat and up to the skies for sprawling aerial battles is like watching a better version of last year’s Battlefront. The final act on the tropical planet of Scarif is worth the price of admission alone.
Of course, darkness can only go so far when it comes to Star Wars, and while this is arguably the most unforgiving chapter in the franchise, it’s still riddled with lighter popcorn fare that keeps things bubbly and friendly: Alan Tudyk delivers some yuks by voicing sassy Imperial-turned-Rebel droid K-2SO; Donnie Yen charms with his words of wisdom as the blind, Force-obsessed warrior Chirrut Îmwe; and a rogues gallery of familiar faces pop up in all the right and wrong places — from big baddies like Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin to heroic leaders like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa.
That last part becomes rather distracting and winds up fracturing much of Rogue One. Reason being, the core story — ahem, Rebel spies stealing secret plans to the Empire’s unholy Death Star — has to keep accommodating these random cameos and Easter eggs, to the point that they actually take minutes away from more serviceable areas like, you know, character development. As such, it’s not surprising that the whole Rogue One team lacks some much-needed chemistry or why Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic feels less like a villain and more like a forced plot device.
A few of these discrepancies may be due to those aforementioned reshoots. When they were first acknowledged by The Hollywood Reporter, it was rumored that the goal was to “lighten the mood, bring some levity into the story, and restore a sense of fun to the adventure,” all of which was (obviously) denied by the studio. Now, after seeing the film, it’s clear that something happened over the summer. Not only is it plagued by glaring tonal issues, but there are a number of not-so-subtle story gaps that scream of missing key scenes. At times, it feels like the action’s going from point A to point D.
Regardless, Rogue One still suffers from a terrible case of prequelitis. After all, we know where this story leads to: A young Carrie Fisher sends two droids packing, gets kidnapped by James Earl Jones, only to be saved by a couple hunks (and a wookie) who blast the multi-octillion dollar piece of hardware into smithereens. There’s fanfare, more sequels, rinse and repeat. So, what’s the point to this? Good question. Whereas last year’s The Force Awakens felt refreshing for finally looking forward after years of meandering, uninspiring prequels, Rogue One feels like a step back … and that’s not good.
Even worse, the film indulges in the kind of extravagance that made those prequels so annoying, specifically the way it’s beholden to the source material. When Rogue One was first announced, there was hope — there’s that word again — that this would be something totally separate, totally unique, and totally removed from the initial series. That’s just not the case here: For Christ’s sake, there’s a spooky CGI reimagining of Peter Cushing as Tarkin, and it’s hardly just a quick cameo. No, this is a walking and talking role that does nothing but remind you of the other films again and again. It’s really limiting.
And those limitations act in direct opposition to the actual story at hand, not to mention its widely eclectic A-list cast of Jones, Luna, Mendelsohn, Tudyk, Yen, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, and Riz Ahmed. Never has this franchise brandished such a diverse ensemble, and although they’re each singularly cool enough to warrant individual action figures, they’re often straddled with expository dialogue straight out of Wookiepedia. Again, it’s because this film has to work towards a specific finish line with specific expectations and specific demands, and that requires specific storytelling.
You know what that sounds like? The Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Granted, Disney’s other hot commodity has been selling like hotcakes for over half a decade, so it makes sense that they’d try to weld that success to Star Wars. The problem is that by subscribing to that formula, they’re forfeiting their ability to make these spin-offs and anthology films branch out into all kinds of directions and genres, which is something Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy initially wanted to do. Because if we’re to observe Marvel’s catalogue of films, it’s very rare that any of them — outside of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy — strays too far stylistically and even structurally from the core.
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To its credit, Rogue One does an admirable job at trying new things, at least visually. Fans who complained about seeing the same type of planets in The Force Awakens should find solace in the rich scenery to this story, whether it’s the Blomkamp-esque filth of Jedha’s city streets or the Beach Boys bliss of Scarif’s sunny confines. For the first time in a long while, you’re actually transported to worlds that don’t feel all that familiar — because let’s be honest, Jakku was basically Tattooine with more scrap metal — and there’s something pretty magical about that notion. It’s what every Star Wars film should do.
What’s ultimately frustrating about Rogue One is how it’s clearly coming from two minds. There’s Edwards’ impressionistic views of war, lensed to melancholic heaven by cinematographer Greig Fraser, with wide establishing shots that dazzle for its achingly brusque naturalism. And then on top of all that, there’s the more standard Star Wars fluff, from Michael Giacchino’s bouncy flourishes of John Williams (not exactly the grand departure Alexandre Desplat might have been) to the redundant droid humor involving mathematical odds (at least six references to that joke). For a film that’s all about hope and rebellion, it’s kind of ironic how it’s such a conflicted mess in and of itself.
The Force should have been stronger with this one.