-Gripping action scenes and gorgeous set pieces make ‘Rogue One’ enjoyable enough to recommend.
What if Rogue One wasn’t a “Star Wars” movie?
Surprisingly, that’s the question I frequently asked myself during the two-hour run time of the franchise’s new place-holder project. It’s a way to properly connect the oft-criticized prequels with the original films, and it’s a little taste of the universe that wets our whistles as we await Episode VIII next year. However, there was something missing in Rogue One that separates it from The Force Awakens, and I think I put my finger on what it is: It shouldn’t have been a Star Wars movie.
What really is shocking about Rogue One is that it is masterfully proficient in all ways that don’t feel like Star Wars, and it’s clunky in all areas that try to be too much like its franchise kin. Sure, it’s evident that the Stormtroopers and the blaster guns indicate that it’s a galaxy far, far away, but I don’t think it’s the same galaxy that we’re used to.
Perhaps it was director Gareth Edwards of Godzilla fame who really changed the feel of this movie, but the fact that there were tons of articles indicating re-shoots and the re-scoring of the film is not really surprising after watching the finished product. Edwards stated that he did a lot of the modeling after war films and framing scenes in the best way, and most realistic way, he could. That tale here about espionage, war, redemption, and infiltration is really, really solid. The constant need to tease us with Darth Vader, mentions of the Force, and CGI-ing classic characters to close the timeline isn’t really.
Our story starts with an engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) being ripped from his family by one of the Empire’s commanders (Ben Mendelsohn as ‘Krennic’) to work on project Death Star, the building of the infamous space station that could destroy an entire planet in one shot. He leaves behind his daughter, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who grows up without a family and becomes a bit of a criminal. When Galen sends a defecting pilot (Riz Ahmed) with a recording about how he, as a primary engineer, has made the Death Star vulnerable, it ends up in the hands of rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Gerrera watched over Jyn when she was young, and Jyn also spent, at least, the first few years of her life with her complicated father, so the Rebellion brings her in to try to get her to organize a possible alliance with Gerrera in exchange for a fresh start. She teams up with Rebel Commander Cassian (Diego Luna) and his trusty droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to head to meet with Gerrera. (She befriends the force sensitive Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen there who also join the entourage.) As this plan unfolds, the pressure begins to mount on Krennic, who begins to hear it from Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader himself.
The film starts a bit choppy. There were definitely some problems in properly bringing us into the environment that they wanted, where we flash between about six different locations very rapidly in introducing the story. Although not a huge flaw, it did take about 10 minutes to get my wits about me to really start absorbing the feelings and style that the movie was made in. The introduction of Gerrera, the pilot, Jyn, and how she became who she is at the start of the film is pretty jarring, and shifts both physical location and emotional state very quickly. Once you get through that opening and Jyn becomes involved with the Rebellion, the story begins moving a lot smoother, really only deviating between what our Rebel friends are doing, and what trouble Krennic is in on Empire-Land.
Krennic himself is not a great villain. He’s clearly motivated by ego and power, but it’s not conveyed through a very respectable way, and we wonder how he hasn’t gotten chopped sooner, especially with Vader’s lack of patience with his crew. (“Apology accepted, Captain Needa.”)
Mendelsohn is a good actor, and I’ve seen him in things where he works, but he usually portrays the down-on-his-luck, almost-white-trash style character really well, but I didn’t really buy him as an intelligent commander who has risen though the Empire’s ranks. The performance is very one-note, filled with only jealousy as the primary emotional state, and we sympathize our character’s struggle with the Empire as a whole much more than we quantify it through the character who is supposed to be the primary villain. In the same light, I didn’t really love Diego Luna as Jyn’s main side-kick. While his performance did have the occasional nuance that made him likable in the end, I couldn’t really tell you anything about his character and why we should really root for him. There’s a few throwaway lines about the bad things he’s even had to do for the cause he believes in as a Rebel, but I would’ve liked more depth to him if he was going to be one of our lead heroes. We get more depth in the partnership of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen than we do in him.
The clear-cut performance that did stand out was Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. We all knew that she was going to nail it, perhaps aided by her striking similarity to Daisy Ridley’s Rey (they are essentially interchangeable, but both are fantastic), but it was still nice and refreshing to get her performance in this. Props to Star Wars for giving us two straight female protagonists that are great. I don’t like to get all social-rah-rah in my reviews, but Rey and Jyn are totally bad-ass, and totally worth young girls getting interested in as the characters they want to dress up as and emulate. In fact, they’re a lot cooler than Luke and Anakin, if I may say so myself. Felicity Jones shows a true range here as a lost soul finding her voice and redeeming herself in using her abilities for good.
Anyway, the other characters I really liked were Riz Ahmed as the spirited pilot who follows his good sense in defecting to the rebellion, and Mads Mikkelsen as the father. While Ahmed has a really strong arc in this movie that begins before we even see him on screen, Mikkelsen’s character does something even greater for the series, he finally answers the question of “why was the damn Death Star so vulnerable in the first place?” A lot of loose ends are tied up almost entirely through his character, and seeing him have to leave his daughter behind does a lot of damage to both of them at the start of the film. It’s obvious that neither have fully recovered when we meet them.
Because of the nature of the type of story that the film tells, the best parts are actually the war scenes. The landscapes, especially the final destination planet in the third-act, are incredible. I can’t really speak kindly enough about the two recent Star Wars films and their eye for a great environment that feels both rustic and gorgeous. While there’s still a love for sand planets (there’s another one here), the final act takes place on perhaps the most gorgeous Star Wars planet we’ve seen yet.
Now, we all know about the beach scene, right? The trailers show rebels and Stormtroopers firing at each other in this beach/lake environment while planes and AT-AT’s chase after them. This final battle, minus the last five minutes of the movie, is breathtaking. They splice it in with Jyn’s espionage plot and it’s equally tense and thrilling, equally gorgeous and desolate. One scene involving a climb inside scaling a wall, and one scene involving explosions around the planet were both just tremendous, and reminded us why war films in a fantasy setting like this can be so impactful and entertaining. We splice that with a space battle revolving around a totally spectacular gate/shield mechanism, and you have yourself a damn good third act, my friends.
The other huge positive is that it keeps the tactile style of The Force Awakens. The Stormtroopers, blaster beams, and practical effects on the creature design all really cross-over, and the ability to blend these great costumes and ideas with flawless CG is one of the film’s biggest achievements.
This leads me, however, to some of my glaring flaws, that may be more about personal taste than anything, but it’s how I felt.
There’re two characters here who are totally computer generated. I don’t know that I should necessarily spoil it, but it looked very distracting against the real human characters that they were placed with. Perhaps it’s just the ability of the human eye to immediately detect it, but they didn’t move or speak right compared to the live-action characters, and I felt that the inclusion of them was entirely unnecessary to the film. It could’ve been as simple as a body double having his back turned during the scenes and minimize his duties during the film, rather than what they chose to do, which was extremely distracting, and also disconcerting. There are plenty of living actors who need work, let’s not start CG-ing old actors because we feel that it’s necessary. It’s not.
The final big flaw for me actually comes from the film’s incessant need to remind us that it’s a Star Wars movie. It first gets annoying in the Donnie Yen character chanting “the force is with me, I am one with the force,” but becomes really evident in the final five minutes or so. The need to include Darth Vader in this film, and the scene where he is introduced was so distracting. We are engaged in this war film that is extremely taut and well-paced, and then we take this deviation to see Vader on his home planet. But then, in the end, when he comes to try to clean up the mess, it did feel like fan service. I just felt his presence entirely unnecessary to the film, and I actually thought the prevailing Star Wars gimmicks, like name call-outs or the need for a cheeky droid sidekick, as hindrances to how good this movie could have been. Gareth Edwards wanted to make a grounded film, and I’m almost positive that some of the most fan-friendly choices that were made were entirely done in either re-shoots or by studio coersion. This movie wasn’t good because it had “A Star Wars Story” attached to its name. It was good because it had a good lead character and good war scenes to help fill in some of the extraneous flaws about it. I would’ve been very happy if none of the characters were force sensitive. It seems like, except for Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, most of the leg work on what’s important in the galaxy is done by people who are not force sensitive. This movie would’ve been even better if that was ignored entirely. A Star Wars movie without a lightsaber? I’m actually convinced that was the better route.
Either way, it’s still worth your time, I’m just talking about personal tastes in the execution. Overall, it was solid.
P.S. I LOVED The Force Awakens, so this anti-Star-Wars-canon talk really only pertains to this specific story-telling.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Director: Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters)
Starring: Felicity Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Diego Luna, and Alan Tudyk
with: Forest Whitaker, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed, and Valene Kane
RT Score: 83%