"Rogue One" has its head in the right place, at least.
Currently Disney is threatening the world of pop culture with a superweapon whose power is beyond imagination: an endless series of Star Wars sequels and spin-offs for the rest of our lives. If you want a picture of the future, imagine Darth Vader’s boot stamping on a human face – forever. So it is good that "Rogue One" looks and feels like a very different kind of SciFi movie. This is not grandpa George Lucas' space opera.
Rather than the operatic joy of a typical Star Wars episode, "Rogue One" goes for a more dour and gritty view of the universe. It is stylistically darker and more serious than even "Empire Strikes Back" or "Revenge of the Sith". The heroes do not get huge action scenes and victories. Giant weird monsters and fun quips are missing. This is a Star Wars film without an idealistic Jedi hero. It shows just how essential those Joseph Campbell protagonists are, because without them, this series ends up in a much uglier and more desperate mode. With a cast of badly broken people and morally gray decisions, "Rogue One" gives us a view of the hard underside of the Star Wars universe.
But what I really love about "Rogue One" is the design of this movie. Most Star Wars cinematography is very plain, if even deliberately retro. No other film series can get away with cheesy side-wipes anymore, but Star Wars can. "Rogue One" uses a digital camera rather than film to create a grimmer tone, but also beautifully complex shots. This is the best looking Star Wars movie by far. The typical bombast of the John Williams score is replaced. We don't even get an opening crawl. Director Gareth Edwards makes it clear he's telling his own story without the old formula.
So far so good. The only problem is that "Rogue One" forgot to have characters.
By the time you leave "Rogue One" you will have fallen in love with a few humanoid shapes in "Rogue One"’s script. Specifically those would be "Ip Man" himself, Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe, the blind force sensitive samurai, and K-2SO, the snarky robot voiced by Alan Tudyk. They are entertaining figures that give the movie plenty of room to be inventive and fun. K-2SO can be a sarcastic Star Wars answer to Marvin the Robot. And Chirrut is just awesome, beating up Stormtroopers with a big stick. Along the way you’ll also be entertained by Darth Vader’s sick Dad Puns.
But these people are not characters, they're flavor. It would be great to tell a story about a blind samurai and his overly literal robot buddy. But "Rogue One" is not about them. It's about some other people. Those people are missing all the dimensions that a character should have. "Rogue One" is cursed to be a slog once you realize its key limitations.
"Rogue One"'s lead is boring. The main love interest isn’t much better. And the villain is sniveling middle management type. We don’t see enough of the heroine’s parents to make them real characters. And her mentor figure is certainly weird, but he does not have much to do in this script. How do you fail so utterly at the very basics of storytelling?
"Rogue One" is a difficult case because so much of it is so good. You get flashes of how this movie could have been a master class in how to make a Star Wars prequel actually work. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso has a flashback of herself as a child, watching her father drink happily with the main villain. So much emotion and complexity is conveyed with very little dialog in that scene. I love details like how Jyn’s toy is a wooden Stormtrooper doll. Gareth Edwards sells the size of the Death Star by parking a Star Destroyer right next its dish. The Star Destroyer looks like a white dot compared to the massive mechanical terror. Speaking of which, the Death Star’s use in this film is downright cataclysmic, showing just how powerful this weapon is even when it isn’t erasing planets from existence.
But then "Rogue One" fails at the simplest of character arcs. Jyn Erso begins the movie as a hot-headed criminal that wants nothing to do with the rebellion. At some point she becomes the biggest rebel in the band, more legit than even the Alliance leaders. Unfortunately as a protagonist Jyn is utterly without dimension of any kind. She is an indescribable blob of Felicity Jones’ cuteness and a bit of spunk the writers threw in. But I could not name you a single defining trait to this person.
The other characters do not do much better. Her rebel handler, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is willing to shoot a crippled friend in the back in his first scene. Then at some random interval in the film, he cannot complete his secret assassination mission. And as for Forest Whitaker’s character, one scene he looks like a normal person. Then next time we see him he’s suddenly leading a terrorist cell, has a pet Mindflayer monster, and is huffing some kind of gas like he’s Frank Booth from "Blue Velvet".
Does everybody have a scene missing or something?
The first half of "Rogue One" is incredibly hurried for what is not a terribly complicated script. Exposition is thrown around haphazardly, the heroes jump to and fro ten planets in the span of a half hour, and every scene is utilitarian. By that I mean, we never get moments of simple character development. Everybody is in such a rush to get to the next piece of the Death Star puzzle they forget to ever be people. The blind samurai and the robot get some banter here or there, but that’s not a character foundation. "Rogue One" whiplashes so hard it reminded me of cruddy 1980s B-movies like "Starcrash" that just want to get the exposition out of the way so that they could throw in the weird aliens. Only "Rogue One" is too serious to ever be colorful and fun like those things.
Jyn never has her time to wear her Rebel Pilot helmet and play star fighter like Rey in "Episode VII". She never stands out in the desert staring at two suns like Luke. She never even goes "yipee!" like a moron like little Anakin. Of course Jyn can easily switch from lone wolf to having "There is No 'I' in Team' tattooed on her ass, she never had a goal in the first place. Jyn is never given time to become a person, as the film has to cram her story in with about a dozen others. Meanwhile she's flirting with Cassian in Act 3, when they had no chemistry of any kind before. It's not like she was looking for love or against romance in their previous interactions, so why not? You could plug this character into anything.
You can complain all you want about how "The Force Awakens" was just a retread of the originals. But that film was confident in realizing its characters. It had a goal to create a cast of figures that could carry a franchise for a generation. "Rogue One" does not care, because these characters don't matter. Look, Star Wars isn't a sophisticated character study. However, we should still get the mere basics of archetypes.
Things get better once "Rogue One" finally takes us to where it wanted to go in the first place: the big war scene. Here Gareth Edwards’ skills are best used. Unlike his cocktease of a "Godzilla" movie, "Rogue One" delivers the goods in a grand finale. This is a blunter take on the Star Wars finale, with most of the cast rushing into an Imperial base in a suicide mission. Solutions here don’t come from blowing up the reactor core, but by ramming Star Destroyers out of the sky. Heroes drop one by one as they run through tropical beaches, like an intergalactic retelling of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
However, "Rogue One" also makes the classic modern Hollywood mistake of making the finale too damn long. At some point the heroes need to blow up a shield, flip a switch, run a cable to a thing, steal a floppy disc, climb to a dish, and find time to deal with AT-ATs and the main villain’s hissy fit. Is that enough? At least they never pour a golden dwarf statue to melt a dragon, but it's still too complicated.
But the bigger problem is how overshadowed these characters are by the very legacy they’re sitting in. Ben Mendelsohn as the big bad is a pretty piss poor replacement for such figures as Darth Vader and Governor Tarkin. And his character is literally overshadowed, those other two characters appear again frequently in "Rogue One". (Peter Cushing has returned from the grave thanks to the vampires on Disney’s employ.) Mendelsohn isn’t very good, but he could be better if the movie showed any faith to let his character actually be menacing, other than just posing decently in his white cape.
It gets worse when legacy characters are popping up everywhere. There are a dozen "Episode IV" cameos all through "Rogue One", including even the guy with the messed-up face that threatens Luke in the Cantina. It keeps reminding you that what you’re seeing is a side-story. You don't need to feel too bad about the characters here. They had nowhere to go anyway. Jyn and Cassion are all just the guys who pass the ball to Luke. He gets goal, they get nothing.
No wonder why the movie itself is not interested in Jyn Erso, she’s completely disposable and irrelevant to the real story. Why should there even be a real story? "Rogue One" should be able to stand gracefully on its own two feet. Despite being beautifully-shot and grandly composed, "Rogue One" does not. It is better than certain other Star Wars prequels, but it is not a good movie.
On the other hand, in the last minute Darth Vader goes goddamn ape shit and wrecks ass like freaking storm of death. I mean he tears badass so hard your eyeballs with pop out the back of your head from the force of sheer coolness. So "Rogue One" is 10/10, because Darth Vader.