Obviously, here be SPOILERS
What a movie, right?
If you’re anything like me then you walked out of your Rogue One: A Star Wars Story screening humming with excitement. How could you not be, with an ending like that, smashing into credits just as it queues up the origin of one of our most beloved shared stories?
And yet, if you are a bit more like me then you might’ve felt that the blast of pure adrenaline that Rogue One served up came seasoned with just the faintest dash of something else. Something with a strong aftertaste that after a little while began to dull the glow and taint the experience a little bit. Something that, upon reflection, seemed to vibrate with the sadness of missed opportunity, but which also eluded easy classification.
Well after thinking, drinking, sleeping, and then thinking some more on it I believe I have conquered the eluded, and thus I have concluded:
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story comes so close to being a Great Movie, but it just misses the mark in one too many ways. There are glimpses of the Great Movie that it could have been, but whether through neglect, accident, or the much publicized studio interference it had been subjected to, the Rogue One that we have been given appears instead to be a whittled down version of something truly special. That feels like a missed opportunity, but on the other hand also like a hopeful sign of things to come.
Before we get into the mark-missing though, a word should be had about all the things the movie does right.
Because it does plenty right.
Being the first Star Wars series spin-off, Rogue One has been an interesting beast to follow, from its announcement, through its development, and to its completion. We had never seen a genuine tangential riff on the established Star Wars movie universe before. In bringing one to us Disney was going to go the Marvel route by hiring a genuinely interesting, talented director to helm it; in this case Gareth Edwards — the man behind the wonderful Monsters and the visually impressive-but-not-so-great recent Godzilla outing — who promised us that the first spin-off would also be the first actual war movie set in the Star Wars universe. The endless possibilities afforded by such a gigantic playground as the one conceived by Lucas et al. in theory allow all manner of genre stories to be be told within it, but all we’ve ever had is essentially a soap opera-style adventure featuring the multi-generational exploits of one very dysfunctional family. Rogue One, we were told, would break from this. In its telling of the tale of a small band of rebels stealing the plans for the original Death Star it would give us guerrilla-flavoured war thrills with a side helping of heist movie. Something that we’ve never seen before.
And that, I believe, is Edwards’ most notable success: this movie is different to what we are used to seeing from the franchise. It feels like a distinct entity. It is still unmistakably Star Wars, of course, but — even though its plot is adjacent to a familiar one — it feels like it’s playing by a different set rules. This is reflected most in the people we follow in this story. The characters driving Rogue One are are not mythical heroes or high-born members of royal blood. They are, by and large, normal people at the mercy of forces (small ‘f’) far larger than they. They are, in effect, a cast of Han Solos. And while obviously not as iconic as Harrison Ford’s Han, the actors — with varying levels of material to work with — all pretty much knock it out of the park. Felicity Jones does alternately defensive and vulnerable very well; Diego Luna pitches his morally compromised and troubled rebel pilot at just the right level of intensity; Riz Ahmed brings wonderful levels of pathos to his Bodhi; Wen Jiang and Donnie Yen have chemistry through the roof; and Alan Tudyk is by now an old hand at imbuing a voice-only character with humour and sympathy. In short, the performances are top notch.
Visually, too, is where Rogue One shines brightest. I’m going to avoid comparisons to The Force Awakens for the most part as I think they are two projects with wildly different goals, but Gareth Edwards, working with cinematographer Greig Fraser (Killing Them Softly), has constructed a universe for us that — through choices in design, framing, and colour — feels far more coherent and visually contiguous than J.J. Abrams and Dan Mindel’s one. There are also some standalone shots in Rogue One that feel instantly iconic. Star Wars, for all its faults as a series, has always traded in imagery that sears itself into your mind, and Rogue One has proven itself to be a proud carrier of this torch. The Star Destroyer looming over Jeddha City while Jyn, Cassian, and K-2SO scout the location from a distant ridge is gorgeous and full of portent. The Death Star — an object now savagely dulled by familiarity and repetition — is given new life in its infancy by several shots that impress upon us just how much it deserves that name and how much of a game-changer it is. The few moments when the camera lingers during the ground battle on Scarif, too, sometimes evoke the juxtaposition of idyllic natural beauty with the horrors of war that characterised the Pacific theatre of WWII (with added AT-ATs), and a few indelible images are created.
And while we’re here we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that scene. Darth Vader’s brief stroll through a rebel ship corridor is a precision-engineered beast. It is the best kind of fan service, blurring the definitions of that term into meaninglessness — yes, it’s clearly designed to make long-time fans salivate, but it is not shoehorned in, instead being 100% born out of story and character. It makes perfect sense in context. Vader’s terrifying dismantling and single-handed slaughtering of a troop of rebel fighters finally shows us why he is a figure of unspeakable menace and why his name elicits the fear that it does throughout the galaxy. As the rebels desperately pass on the drive with the Death Star plans on them, and as Vader cuts them down one by one, it almost feels like we are in Alien rather than Star Wars. And that’s exactly the way it should be when a dark demigod deals death.
So with so much done right, how is it that things still reek of missed opportunity?
I think it’s because Rogue One feels like the closest that a Star Wars movie has come to transcending the limitation of its form. That’s not a dig at Star Wars — we all love Star Wars, but even its staunchest fans would admit that it is for the most part an inherently ridiculous franchise. Even when we’re swept up in the heat of its narrative drama, that feeling is continuously undercut by moments of levity or tonal mismatch. Admiral Ackbar barking ‘It’s a trap!’ is hilarious even while it’s meant to be ratcheting up tension and peril. The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the series, and it’s also the one that comes closest to achieving a real dramatic weight, but even when Han is frozen into carbonite — arguably one of the darkest moments in the movies, and one filmed and performed pretty much perfectly — there is a certain flippancy to proceedings. It is the case with art, of course, that you must always judge achievement against intent, and The Empire Strikes Back — and most of the original trilogy - succeeds admirably where and how it aims to. These are movies seeking to paint in broad strokes mythical stories of good and evil. They do not set their sights on anything other than that.
Rogue One is a project with different plans. It aims to be a desperate war story with shades of grey, populated by people who have done good, done bad, and who are sometimes unsure of which is which. Yes, there are Death Stars and Sith Lords and wisecracking droids, but the presentation and handling of these means the focus can stay elsewhere. It can remain instead on the band of desperate rebels; their humanity in the face of overwhelming odds; their precarious, evolving relationships on a march to certain doom; the unflinching power of hope, even in the deepest holes of despair. For all its not-quite-The-Force-Awakens-levels-but-still wide-eyed and colourful depiction of the galaxy, these are clearly the considerations at the heart of Rogue One. I’ve been accused of looking for the wrong thing in Star Wars — that these are just melodramas about space wizards and what more do I want? But it’s clear now that people like Gareth Edwards also see the potential for something else to exist in this vast universe.
It is such a shame, then, that his movie fumbles the delivery ever-so-slightly in one too many places. It hints at greatness, and in a few sublime moments it achieves it, but because of the accumulation of errors it just misses transcending as a whole. Mostly this is in the writing, and while we may never know for sure how much of that is down to the rewrites all we can judge right now is the finished product.
(I will not be covering the strange, strange choices that are CGI Tarkin and Leia; or the disjointed feeling that the initial rapid planet-hopping brings to the plot as I feel these have already been discussed at length elsewhere. Nor will I be touching on Vader and Krennic’s awful scene on the lava planet and the worst, most misjudged pun in recent memory. Some mad geniuses have already covered that too.)
At the heart of Rogue One is Jyn Erso. An independent and emotionally defensive criminal, she purports to have no stake in the rebellion that eventually draws her into its orbit. Conflicted by her father’s apparent loyalties and her abandonment by him, and later his surrogate, Saw Gerrera, it is not until she hears her father’s message and understand his mission that she fully embraces the cause, at that point becoming the de facto leader of her small band of rogue rebels. In the end, this disenfranchised and cynical woman proves to be the fulcrum around which a galaxy-wide rebellion against tyranny turns. That is a fine arc. The trouble is that it feels underwritten. We are shown the broad strokes of Jyn’s conversion from cynical criminal to rebel leader, but it comes across as sudden and un-earned. Similarly Saw Gerrera’s presence in Rogue One comes across as a jarring and unnecessary distraction. There are important narrative and thematic functions that Gerrera could have fulfilled — for Jyn’s emotional backstory and even more so for the core question of, ‘how far do you go when fighting for a righteous cause,’ but unfortunately the movie never explores these in any depth. That’s especially a shame for the latter as the script does otherwise flirt with asking some difficult questions. A bit more time spent filling in these gaps would have had massive payoff and would have increased the already quite potent emotions earned in the film’s final moments.
This applies similarly to two of the other central pillars of Rogue One — pillars that are also simultaneously the strongest and weakest aspects of the movie: Jyn’s band of rebels, and the final battle at Scarif.
There are not many joys in cinematic storytelling greater than getting to know a band of plucky rebels/outcasts/hopeless heroes. Seeing their initial interactions and watching their evolving relationships is a pleasure inbuilt into the form. Whether in a more lighthearted narrative or a more serious, fatalistic context (e.g. Reservoir Dogs vs. 13 Assassins), it is a trope ripe for creative exploitation. Rogue One, as it happens, falls more into the latter category. Alas, though Jyn, Cassian, K-2SO, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi have great potential as a dynamic group, they never evolve past a perfunctory, story-driving unit. Jyn and Cassian’s brief conflict over Jyn’s father and the motivations and morality of warfare is the only really interesting spark in their shared space — and it is touched upon far too briefly and shallowly. Each character individually, too, could stand with a touch more depth from the script. As it is, most of the heavy lifting is done by the formidable talents onscreen, and the audience’s receptiveness to their emoting, rather than any actual material.
Finally, the battle at Scarif. So much ink has already been spilled praising the glorious space battle above the Imperial-controlled planet, and rightfully so — it’s maybe the finest example of the trope in the series thus far. Frantic, spatially coherent, and with a real sense of what’s at stake. Edwards and his crew should be applauded for it. The same can’t be said, though, for what transpires on the surface of Scarif while that other battle rages in its orbit. The ground assault by the troops rallied by Cassian, launched to provide cover for Jyn and Cassian’s infiltration of the data centre, is by and large a disappointment. ‘Make ten men feel like a hundred’, Cassian says to them en route, in a genuinely goosebumps-inducing moment. Unfortunately the only time the action actually delivers on that promise is the one fantastic shot of Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennic, reacting to the series of planned explosions planted by the rebel band. As the flares of fire spread across his view and panic invades the room, we get to momentarily share in the perspective of the empire, and our kinship with the rebels blossoms all the more. The rest of the ground assault relies on nameless grunts darting from location to location, blasting at stormtroopers sporadically appearing from seemingly arbitrary holes. We have no real idea of numbers — which seem to fluctuate depending on the dramatic needs of Jyn and Cassian’s progress — or space, so while we occasionally feel the troop’s struggle this, and the furious cutting, at times threatens to dissolve the action into weightless incoherence. The less said about Jyn and Cassian’s journey up the implausibly designed data bank tower the better.
All of these flaws, while not experience-killing, add up, and they end clipping the wings of a movie that could have soared much higher. It’s a real shame, because Gareth Edwards and his team should otherwise be applauded for taking an established, now-Disney-controlled franchise, and for injecting some real gravitas and innovation into it. Rogue One has done very well critically and is continuing to perform at the box office, so hopefully this might mean that in the eternal dance between soulless safe investment and daring creative endeavor, the endeavor might be allowed to lead for a few steps in the near future.