Rogue One marks the first of what will probably be an indefinite number of new Star Wars movies that will appear on alternating years between the ongoing episodes of the main saga. As such, I had hoped it would be more of a ‘stand-alone’ spin-off movie, without being too beholden to the original trilogy; the first in a series of films allowing a notable filmmaker to tell a new story of any genre, while exploring the vastness of the expansive Star Wars universe. In the week since I saw Rogue One, I’m increasingly wondering why I ever entertained that thought at all, as the film is it’s complete opposite.
I don’t think I’d even call Rogue One a spin-off; this film is as much a prequel to the original Star Wars as any film in the official ‘prequel trilogy’ was; it’s essentially a feature-length ret-con, providing a credible explanation for one of the original’s more questionable moments. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if Rogue One is anything to go by, it may well be setting up a couple of trends for the upcoming Star Wars movies that are not positive signs.
The biggest complaint that was regularly aimed at The Force Awakens was that it’s essentially a re-tread of A New Hope, an accusation that’s hard to argue with. Rogue One isn’t such an obvious example of this, but it doesn’t really shake things up with the formula at all until its final act. However, what it does do, most depressingly, is cram in a load references to the original trilogy, ranging from dialogue, prolonged shots, and a series of cameos. All of these serve absolutely no purpose other than to wink at the audience and say “hey, you recognize this yeah?” This reaches its nadir when they even shoehorn in C3PO and R2-D2 for a cringe-worthy moment.
Speaking of cringe-worthy moments, this has probably the worst line of dialogue in a Star Wars movie since Anakin and Padme’s infamously awful courtship scenes in Attack of the Clones, a moment where Darth Vader makes a terrible joke. We all knew Vader was going to be appearing in the film at some point, he was in the marketing, and I was looking forward to seeing him actually be a villain again. He has two major scenes in the movie, one is awful, and one is fantastic. The more I’ve thought about it the more I think this film would have been so much better had they cut out the earlier scene entirely, and saved him for the climax. It would have been so easy to do as well; it’s a real shame, and shows a depressing lack of confidence by Disney in their new characters; apparently believing that they have to throw in an older one every so often. Still, when it arrives, said final scene is brilliant and possibly the best Darth Vader scene ever.
The other big disappointment is that this is very clearly a film by committee. Disney look to be using the Marvel Cinematic Universe as their model and ensuring that the Star Wars films all conform to a similar tone and filmmaking style, with director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, 2014’s Godzilla) seemingly not getting a chance to put anything much of his own into it, instead echoing the same editing and framing techniques that George Lucas employed 40 years ago. It’s a worrying sign if the Star Wars series is going to continually snap up interesting directors and then have them all produce films that look and feel virtually the same.
A great strength to Rogue One though is its cast; almost every major character here is played by a really interesting actor, most of who manage to bring a lot more to them than the movie otherwise does. Some highlights include Donnie Yen as a blind warrior who appears to believe in The Force without possessing force powers. He, perhaps unsurprisingly, gets a couple of great fight scenes but also an interesting relationship with his partner (Jiang Wen). Mads Mikkelsen brings a touch of class to proceedings in a supporting role, in which he has uncharacteristically not been cast as a villain. That honour goes to Ben Mendelsohn, who takes his rather one-note Imperial Commander role to highly entertaining, scenery-chewing levels. And then a lot of the film’s best comic moments come courtesy of K-2SO, a sarcastic reprogrammed droid played by Alan Tudyk, whose instantly endearing and never too overdone, I’d bet he become a fan-favourite in the coming years.
Rounding out the group of Rebels at the centre of the film are Riz Ahmed, who does the best he can with a bit of a nothing role, and Diego Luna, who is introduced as a far more dynamic character than he unfortunately ends up being – with him having a couple of key character moments that feel somewhat unearned. The weak link is sadly the protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is just rather bland, with no particular character to speak of. That she’s one of the few female examples of such a character in a blockbuster movie gives her some leeway but it’s not enough. However, overall the film’s commitment to having a diverse group of actors portray a scrappy group of rebels is most commendable and very pleasing to see.
The strength of the actors and a few memorable set-pieces assists the film’s “getting the team together” first half get past some rather dubious plotting, which doesn’t flow especially well nor convincingly sell that these disparate people would all become a cohesive team. The film really beings to sag in the mid-section as well, plodding, albeit amiably, its way towards the main plan to retrieve the Death Star plans that we all knew the film was about.
Another disappointing aspect of Rogue One is its score. John Williams has long been the MVP of the Star Wars movies, frequently referred to as George Lucas’ “secret weapon”, and so much of the nostalgia fans have for the series is rooted in, and inseparable from his music. Although Alexandre Desplat was originally hired, his eventual replacement Michael Giachinno seemed like the best person to provide the first non-Williams Star Wars score but from moment one there’s something that just feels off about his work here. The opening titles that appear with a similar (might even be the same) interval as the iconic theme, but it then goes in a slightly different direction ends up feeling like someone performing a bad John Williams rip-off. There aren’t any notable original themes that stick in your mind and every-time it drops a hint of the originals in without playing the actual tune it’s frustrating.
There is one other talking point that can’t be avoided when addressing Rogue One, and I suppose it’s a mild spoiler but the films been out for a number of weeks now; the decision to digitally resurrect Peter Cushing’s role as Grand Moff Tarkin via CGI. Leaving aside any of the ethical issues which come with recreating a long-dead actor’s likeness; the technology just isn’t there yet. When we first see him, I was admittedly taken aback, but as soon as he starts speaking he doesn’t look real at all, especially seeing that he’s paired with non-CG actors. Every time he speaks it’s like a seeing state-of-the-art videogame character in this live-action movie, and it completely took me out of it.
Even though, it being a prequel to one of the most famous movies ever, we all know where Rogue One was going, it does really pick up in its final act, with Edwards delivering the best space battle scenes this series has had in a number of sequences that really put the “war” in Star Wars. It also has something that hardly any big blockbuster movies have; actual stakes for its characters. By not insisting that every character must stick around for a sequel, Rogue One is able to make you actually feel the scale of what the rebels are up against. It again enhances the movie’s war elements, adding a credible threat and uncertainty to the battles, which also incorporate a number of familiar vehicles in new situations. This ultimately leads to there being are several moments in the finale that possess a real level of emotional power not seen in many recent blockbusters, with one sacrificial image in particular standing out. These scenes significantly help to redeem Rogue One from its middling second act and overly familiar elements.
I really hope that Disney learns the right lessons from Rogue One; people are going to turn out for a Star Wars movie regardless, so they don’t have to keep recycling the same elements again and again. Rogue One is at its absolute best when it’s actually giving us something new for a Star Wars movie, and at its worst when it’s shoe-horning in needless call-backs. More of the former please.