Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [Review]
The appeal of a movie like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is that it can exist in a universe that is already beloved and yet not find itself beholden to the rules or themes of the franchise that birthed that universe. While the Star Wars Saga films revolve around fated families and the mysteries of the Force, a spin-off film like this could take the opportunity to view the events of the Star Wars universe from a new perspective, from the ground-level grunt fighting in the rebellion who is free from Force connections or daddy issues. It’s a thrilling concept, and in the hands of Gareth Edwards (who gave sky-gazing portent to Godzilla) it could be a literal and thematic perspective on Star Wars that we haven’t seen before.
This makes it all the more disheartening to be introduced to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young woman who’s mother told her to trust in the Force as her father was swept up by the Empire and impressed into service building the Death Star. Her connection to the wider plot on a familial level is meant to give the life-or-death mission to discover a way to destroy the Death Star some level of emotional investment too, but time and again her relationship with her father serves only to grind the propulsive story elements to a halt while the film, with an especially cloying score from Michael Giacchino, tries to browbeat the audience into pathos.
We first meet Jyn as a child on a desolately beautiful planet, working with her father and mother as a farmer. Her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) had once worked as a scientist or engineer for the Empire, which is slowly consolidating its control over the galaxy. It doesn’t take long for the Ersos’s idyllic escape to be spoiled, however, as almost immediately Galen’s former boss, Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives on the planet’s surface to call his old friend back to service. In the process, Jyn’s mother is killed and Jyn herself must go into hiding. Fifteen years later Jyn is in an imperial prison, being transported to a labor camp when she is rescued by a group from the Rebel Alliance, who need her connections in order to make an introduction to a former rebel who is currently holding a defecting Imperial pilot who may know something about the weapon Galen is working on for the Empire.
The plot employs needlessly complicated machinations in order to get all of its pieces in place over the first two-thirds of the film’s runtime. It rapidly builds history between characters who have had minimal screen time together and then rushes to end the minuscule arc that they inhabit together. A conversation regarding hope or purpose will happen once early on so that later, when a character reverses their former stance in a purely oratorical manner, it can feel like emotional growth. The problem is that it is not growth or evolution, but very clearly the work of a film that doesn’t trust its own inherent conflict to be enough to sell its appeal. The concepts of “hope” and trusting the Force are batted around without being woven into the heart of the story itself, so that when they are brought up the movie might as well flash a subtitle that says “this is the moral of the story.”
It is shocking that Edwards, who turned Godzilla into a bleak allegory about the existential threat of nature without resorting to speechifying, should have turned out a film that cannot move from moment to moment without grinding its gears in expository transition. It is equally perplexing that the writers should have found it necessary to pack in so much incident when the narrative here is practically begging for simplicity. Most frustrating of all, though, is the very clear indication that this movie could have been something much better. Beneath the jarring tonal and emotional shifts there is the faint glimmer of a good idea.
In spite of the torturous setup to get Jyn on her mission, the mission parameters themselves and the alternate orders given to her leader, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) seem to be setting us up for a play on Apocalypse Now. The hook was so clear and so appealing that it made the sloppiness of the introductions momentarily forgivable, until the film seemed to sense what it was doing, shifting into Safe Mode so that the moral conflicts between the two apparent leads could be as soft and easily ameliorated as possible. The greatest moral and ethical divide between them isn’t even introduced until after the point at which the decision they would have had to make is taken out of their hands. This makes their entire debate both purely theoretical and utterly pointless. Here was a chance for real states both for the plot and for the characters squandered in the name of playing it safe.
Things do finally click into place a bit during the final scene, at which point Rogue One finally allows itself to be the wartime heist movie it pitched itself as. Here, Edwards’s knack for perspective and overwhelming scale finally come to play, and it is actually quite thrilling to behold. Rogue One delivers the best ground battle and dogfight scenes ever in a Star Wars film, playing the human combatants against the sheer enormity of their mechanized weaponry beautifully. The road to this point is so riddled with nonsensical plot points and missed opportunities, though, that the end result is made all the more frustrating. Where was this breathless awe and spirited action before?
There is an inherent lack of danger to Rogue One, an airlessness and bloodlessness that saps the stakes from the proceedings almost entirely. A character is tortured with a mind-reading alien that promises to break his brain, but he is fine a scene later. The aforementioned moral conflict between Jyn and Cassian never manifests meaningfully. Two side characters share a fundamental difference of belief, but the split is never explored in a philosophical way. The moral cost of rebellion is spoken of, but never expressed in action.
Bloated with needless emotional pantomime and drained of any moral ambiguity despite playacting in that direction, Rogue One deftly sidesteps any interesting choices it might have made in favor of safe, on-the-rails storytelling. That doesn’t make it a truly bad film, but rather a worryingly disappointing one.