It is a tricky thing to tell a good story when practically every audience member knows the ending. It is trickier still when you pack your story with abject fan service, telegraphed plot choices lacking any inspiration, and under-developed characters delivering wooden dialogue. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is guilty of all these failings and many more. It is not a complete disaster, though it coasts off the strength of an exciting third act and a near-fatal dose of nostalgia. As a result, though the initial hoopla will be to declare Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as an utter triumph, extra consideration of the film (perhaps with your gender-neuter fanperson beer goggles off) will reveal its many disappointments.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a movie that tries to be a war movie in the world of Star Wars, complete with a climactic ground battle sequence. The plot is simple, and we already know the essential conclusion: the Rebels need to steal the plans to the original Death Star, thereby setting off the events of Episode IV: A New Hope. This story is told in the most unimaginative way possible, without any characters with an earned motivation (or meaningful relationships).
There are literally dozens of characters, each less memorable than the last, but the major characters are Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Jyn’s father is a scientist who is forced to develop the Death Star, and she has been separated from him since he was taken away when she was young. Cassian is a member of the rebel alliance, and is tasked with finding Jyn’s father and rescuing him so the Death Star remains incomplete. For Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to work, these two characters have to wow us, because they do the majority of the heavy lifting, both thematically and through various plot devices. Instead, they are both dour, uninteresting, and rather poorly performed, even by Star Wars standards. Let’s just say that Jyn’s “rousing” combat speeches don’t quite reach St. Crispin’s Day levels. As for Cassian, he suffers from the standard characterization problem that plagued the entirety of the prequels, which is to say that he has none. With leads this disappointing, it is very easy to start daydreaming right around the second act, when you realize that you’re in for the long haul and you’re watching a snoozefest.
Despite the simplicity of this plot (get Death Star plans), the four credited writers manage to convolute our path until very little makes any sense – especially on a beat-by-beat basis. Does anyone know what the hell is happening in this movie and why? Here are a select few of the confusing plot turns:
1.) Early on, Cassian just finds Jyn in the prison transport? How do they know where / who she is, when the Empire doesn’t?
2.) Why have the Ex-Empire Cargo Pilot “lose his mind” from the bizarre alien mind-ready thing? I thought maybe it was going to be important to keep him around for his information, and it would be a struggle because he would be psychotic – but no. Just tell him, “You’re the pilot” and he pops right back into coherence? Why even have that in the movie, then?
3.) Why have a plot to kill Jyn’s father, especially after the Death Star has already destroyed a city? How does killing him matter in the least anymore?
This list was not exhaustive.
This is lazy storytelling; a lot of time is spent explaining what is happening to the audience – even up to and including the climactic battle sequence. There is no clearer example of this than something that I thought I would never see in a Star Wars film: Location Cards. Though nowhere near as intrusive as the gigantic “BRUSSELS” tags that plagued Captain America: Civil War, these cards are nonetheless distracting, excessive, and utterly useless. There is also bizarre inconsistency, like they decided to stop doing them about halfway through the movie. Thus, a planet we spend less than two minutes on early in the film (and then never return to) gets a location card. The planet was spend the third act on, does not. It’s lazy, it’s needless, but mostly it’s just baffling.
Speaking of lazy, now is as good as a time as ever to lament the depressing amount of fan service in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. ‘Member Star Wars? ‘Member AT-ST Walkers? ‘Member TIE Fighters? ‘Member Bacta Tanks? ‘Member C3PO? ‘Member Darth Vader? ‘Member X-Wings? ‘Member Grand Moff Tarkin? ‘Member AT-AT Walkers? ‘Member Stormtroopers? ‘Member Y-Wings? ‘Member the Death Star? ‘Member Yavin 4! ‘Member Rebels? ‘Member Mon Mothma? ‘Member Mon Calamari? ‘Member Bail Organa?
Okay, those ones are all kind of half-jokes. Obviously, you need to have the Death Star in a movie about stealing the plans to the Death Star. But, there is a single moment of absolute needless fan service that is prequel-level bad, and utterly embarrassing. Walking through a crowded street, our characters bump into a familiar pair: Evazan and Baba. If you don’t know who that is, let me help you:
That’s right – the idiots from the Cantina Scene! The camera halts on the two for a few seconds, just long enough to let the pandering really sink in, as if the filmmakers are talking dirty to the hyperfans, “Yeah, you like that you fucking retards? Those guys were in Episode IV. Awesome!” Not even a three-second cameo from C3PO and R2-D2 sunk to the depths of this shamelessness.
There are also technical problems with the film, beginning with an abysmal soundtrack. What the hell happened? The music is terribly droning, is forward in the mixing and loud, and uninspired to the point that is almost comical. I think there was one scene where the soundtrack was just a single note blared out about seven times in succession (I guess that creates tension?). The few moments we’re treated to some of the original music (or slight variations on it), it is hollow. It is similar to Jurassic World – it attempts to ape off the original to borrow its heart. And fails.
Some of the visual effects are also subpar. Two similar effects both fail, though one more so than the other, and I am referring to the digital re-creations of Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia. Tarkin looks goofy, especially in a couple of specific scenes. Overall, he probably looked better in Rebels:
Princess Leia falls right down the Uncanny Valley. Obviously these characters play a part in this story, so their inclusion isn’t too surprising. I suppose it would be too much to expect some actual storytelling innovation to work these characters into the plot without having them actually appear onscreen with heavy CGI makeup. But no, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes pandering and nostalgia to the technological forefront.
I’d also like to mention that Admiral Ackbar looked fine, still holds up today, and was a puppet made 35 years ago. I can’t say any of those things for his CGI colleague in this film.
Another returning abomination should surprise exactly no one: Darth Vader is an embarrassment. His first scene could be omitted from the film entirely and absolutely nothing would change, other than the audience having to suffer from Darth Vader joking. He delivers legit wordplay in this movie. An actual, honest-to-God pun, from Darth Vader. The scene in which it happens also makes exactly zero sense, and is 100% included in order to “look cool” in a new, darkside kind of way. It took all my mettle not to laugh out loud in the theater.
At last, I’ll come to some of the things I liked. The final battle sequence which takes up most of the third act is well-composed. This battle involves infiltrating a base (don’t they all?), obtaining the Death Star plans, and then either escaping, or transmitting the plans out. There are nice sequences of guerrilla warfare, some shock-and-awe deception, and overall great action editing. There are a few times where characters get a little explainy, telling the audience what their goal is and why they need to do it, but mostly that is okay here due to the fast pace. A far more egregious issue with this climactic sequence is something that plagues the entirety of the movie: predictability.
Because Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is terribly, terribly predictable. And I do not mean in the jokey, “Spoiler Alert: the Titanic Sinks” kind of way. Blockbusters and popular films do not have to be bland and predictable. I am not looking for The Usual Suspects or Se7en or Arrival, but almost everything that happens in this movie (and definitely the third act) is telegraphed minutes ahead of time, if not longer. Perhaps because I was so bored with the first half-plus of the film, I started seeing the obvious beats that the story would hit, but that too would be a fault of the film (not keeping an audience immersed enough in its bland story). Again, it boils down to laziness and risk-aversion.
And this is probably why the thematic material in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is lacking. The spirit of rebellion that we all came to know and love throughout the first three films is oddly absent here. It’s hard to portray a convincing rebellious spirit when you play everything so safe. What could have been a rousing story about fighting for freedom against tyranny, or finding your way in a random and brutal galaxy is instead just a rote little tale about a troupe of one-dimensional fools that make strange choices to enact a conclusion that we already know. It should not be surprising that adding together a bunch of poor stylistic elements and bad execution results in a nebulous, milquetoast theme.
Finally, it is time for my real Hot Take. Though the final two minutes of the movie undoubtedly have the undergarments of the fanpersons absolutely sopping, the culmination of this film is one of the worst sequences in the history of the Star Wars. Darth Vader boards the ship with the plans, turns on his red lightsaber, and wastes a bunch of poor rebels. It is exactly as impressive as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn offing battle droids without effort in The Phantom Menace, and somehow even less meaningful. Why is it entertaining seeing Vader effortlessly crush a bunch of Red Shirts? It is cinematic masturbation at its basest level.
Meanwhile, the rebels play hot-potato with the Death Star Plans, and one man is able to slide it through a slightly-ajar door. Good thing Vader was too busy playing, “I’m a Badass” to simply steal the disc with The Force, or we wouldn’t have any Star Wars at all.
Once the plans are passed, the ship from the opening sequence of Episode IV detaches and hits lightspeed (no tractor beam?, okay). On board, when someone asks a figure hooded in white what they have been given, CGI Leia turns around and says, “Hope” in an awkward, groan-inducing line reading. The only way it could have been worse was if she said, “A New Hope” and winked at the camera.
For all the fanfare, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a poor entry into the Star Wars Universe. It lacks any innovation from a storytelling perspective, offers up bland and under-developed characters, and spends far too much time pandering to the audience for any real significant theme to come through. It is an embarrassing mess of a film that sports an above-average third act. It even manages to fail on various technical levels. For all of its faults, it can count itself as the best prequel in the Star Wars Universe. Congratulations on not tripping over such a low bar.