Star Wars: Rogue One (2016, dir. Gareth Edwards)
Jyn Erso is an orphan, the daughter of a man vital to the success of the Galactic Empire. Her whole life has been spent on the run and now, forcibly united with the Rebel Alliance, she has a chance to reunite with her father do some good. She’s partnered with Rebel officer Cassian Andor and droid K-S20 with more joining along the way. Rogue One is Disney’s first dip in the water with the idea of doing Star Wars films outside of the standard trilogy format. This particular story focuses on the events that led the Rebels to obtain the plans for the Death Star in the first Star Wars film.
The visuals of Rogue One are possibly the best we’ve ever had in a Star Wars film. Director Gareth Edwards has a background in special effects which he has used extensively in his previous two films, Monsters and Godzilla. He seems quite adept at conveying scale through his camera and likes to have large monolithic objects looming menacingly in his backgrounds. The Death Star looks the best it ever has and feels like a truly powerful construct which helps understand the Rebellion’s deep fear. Many of the battle scenes are shot from the ground troops’ point of view, so machines like the Imperial Walkers feel like the colossal weapons of devastation they are intended to be. The final battle sequence taking place on the ground of an Imperial controlled planet and in the space above is full of momentum and energy. The Rebellion’s gear and ships looked perfectly weathered and worn evoking the iconography of the original trilogy.
Rogue One also does some of the most world building a Star Wars film has done in awhile. In the first 15 minutes, we visit five planets, four new and one familiar to fans of Episode IV. We see locales probably spoken about in expanded universe media but never seen on the big screen. As a result, the galaxy feels even more expansive and dense. There are hundreds of alien species glimpsed in crowded bazaar type locations. We see the larger operations of the Empire and get the sense of a truly dominant widespread force to be reckoned with. The film manages to connect up with the moments right before the opening crawl of Episode IV, and I think it adds to the momentum of events in that original film. We understand the anger and frustration of Vader and the urgency of the Rebellion.
The problems with the film lie in character development. I can say that when the film concluded, I didn’t feel any connection to a single one of our main characters or side characters. Jyn Erso is the most problematic because the character never establishes a goal or purpose. She only gets pulled along by the Rebellion but never actually seems to get fed up enough to leave. The biggest pain I had was the lack of a believable bond between her and her father. The first scene we see them in they are getting torn apart by the Empire. It would have been nice to have had a scene, maybe a flashback, that showed the relationship they shared. Instead, we get a brief, poorly written moment on Coruscant where her father just says “He’ll always protect her.” A scene on their moisture farm where he teaches her some childhood lesson tied to the theme of Hope might have helped.
Rogue One does touch on the effects of war on soldiers when Cassian Andor speaks about how he’s done morally reprehensible things in the name of the Rebellion, and this haunts him. However, he pretty much just says this rather than the film showing us how PTSD affects him. That’s a big problem throughout the movie, all of its themes and messages are delivered with such a blunt hammer they lack any emotional weight. Now, I know Star Wars is not known for its complexity, but for a film that is choosing to take on a dark, heavy tone it fails to deliver acting or plotting that matches that tone. It seems to be a common problem with Gareth Edwards’ work that he can give us beautiful, massive visuals but doesn’t really know how to direct a great performance out of his actors. Instead, we get some laughable corny speeches, an element that has never really had a place in Star Wars. Typical military briefings and conversations have been pretty to the point with one newbie (Luke or Finn) chiming in about how they could help.
Because of this lack of character development and connection with the audience, I started to see the film as a whole as a collection of incredibly impressive fan films. The battle in Jedha. The first test of the Death Star. The X-Wing fight above Scarif. These are the types of short films made by people in the special effects industry or who love to make props. Very impressive feats of skill and craftsmanship but the heart of the story and the characters is lacking. There were some very distracting fan nods which you’ll know when you see them. A lot of viewers have negative feelings about the CGI used to put Grand Moff Tarkin in the film, and I agree it looked like a character from a CG-cutscene in the middle of a live action scene. They recast Mon Mothma with an actress who didn’t exactly resemble her and it worked fine. I think they could have done the same with Tarkin and it would have been less distracting.
There’s been a pretty obnoxious trend to quantify Rogue One in the canon, particularly in opposition with The Force Awakens. That placement is all going to depend on your own personal metrics for what makes these films good. In my personal opinion, TFA is a better film than Rogue One because it has charismatic, complex characters in Rey and Finn. Jyn is a blank wall of a character, and I suspect this lies more in the script and direction of Edwards than it does Felicity Jones. But at the end of the day there just is no point in trying to say one Star Wars film is better than another. I think the more valid metric is to ask “Did this film accomplish what it set out to do?”
The Force Awakens was a reboot, not of continuity but of tone. It was intentionally made to follow so many original trilogy beats as a way of re-establishing the franchise and bring both old and new fans into the fold. From what I have read about Rogue One the intent was to tell a very personal, darker story about the War side of Star Wars. And in my opinion, it failed because it never made me care about the characters. Rogue One failed to tell a more human story set in the Star Wars universe. But we have to accept that as with all studio franchises there will end up being such a large pool of films that some will be missteps, people will have different preferences as to what they like. Hell, I could care less if a 20-something says they love the prequels. Everyone can have the films they like.
Rogue One was an incredibly tentative experiment with Star Wars. My hope is that the Han Solo film pushes the boundaries further and that we have additional films that increase the quality and play with what Star Wars can be. From early buzz and interviews with Rian Johnson, he is primed to make Episode VIII go beyond what we have become used to, and I can’t wait.