It’s no secret it has been a year of change. A year of long, drawn out, tumultuous change. And it seemed as if the new Star Wars film, Rogue One, the latest entry in the now-yearly Disney Franchise, was undergoing the same sort of tumult that so much had been subjected to this year. Much had been made of the seemingly endless pickups and reshoots that plagued the sci-fi darling. Worried cries spawned by fear of the mouse “toning down” what was supposed to be a darker look at the Star Wars universe rang throughout the internet. The director Gareth Edwards, the well-liked helm of the Godzilla reboot and his indie monster film aptly titled “Monsters” was said to have been overshadowed by the suits and writers on Disney’s front. Was this to be the death throes of a falling franchise, or a New Hope(™)?
In the most boring twist of fate, it turned out to be neither. While the film isn’t merely a retread of the same water from forty years prior like The Force Awakens, it doesn’t manage to add anything convincing to the canon, and its cardboard portrayal of conflict and character are at best simplistic and at worst condescending. Many fans hailed it as a film of bold choices, bringing the series back to the height it experienced in its prime. I disagree. While I didn’t dislike the film, I found the response to be odd and the overall film to be underwhelming. Why are fans across the board so enthralled by this milquetoast entry?
From the exposition crawl-free opening, to the official title being “Rogue One: a Star Wars Story” Disney seems intent on having just the barest trappings to convince you that this is in fact a Star Wars film. The film is unsure, caught between two states, either being a generic sci-fi story that is Star Wars in name alone, and being nothing more than a reference to the Star Wars franchise. It’s impossible to imagine the film without the self-referential fan service moments, as that’s the most substantial component offered. As the film progresses, it breaks down further and further, the arc swinging not between conflict and resolution but independent and dependent.
We start on a small planet called Lah'mu, home to seemingly nothing more than the Erso family. This is also where we start getting more and more of the Disney trappings, as this entire sequence is nothing more than a long establishment of the characters, conflict, and this film’s slice of the Imperials. This is the film’s flashback, except that it takes place chronologically.
I understand why these sequences exist. It’s an easy way to catch everyone in the theater (regardless of age or familiarity with the franchise) up to speed. But I have to wonder if there’s a better way. Why not just put this information in a crawl? It’s not any more clunky of a delivery method, and fits the franchise more.
It’s on this first planet we get our first look at the star-studded cast. However not even the top-tier talent can save this film, and the characters are often the biggest shortcoming. From either the script, the direction, or the actors themselves, (or most likely, a combination of all three) the characters all come across as flat. They exist as cutouts, archetypes wandering from scene to scene to advance the plot or to have it explained to them (and us, the audience). None of them seem willing or able to muster a care about the predicaments they find themselves in, or the conflict with the empire at large.
Jyn and Cassian, the two heroes of the picture, are the flatest of the bunch. Jyn seems desperate to exude a Marlonian coolness, and barely interacts with the plot or puppets surrounding her. She cares not of the plight of the conflict of the film. Even the death of her parents does little to provoke an emotional response from her. This guarded nature makes her unrelatable, and she isn’t even enough to act as a surrogate for the viewers.
Cassian on the other hand is involved more actively in the rebellion, so at least he has a horse in this race. However, at moments that could have been emotional decisions, such as whether or not to kill Galen, Jyn’s father, he seems almost apathetic to the action, and his decisions often default to a “just ‘cuz” indecision.
It what seems to be impossible to judge as a cinematic choice or mere irony, the two most involved characters in the film come from the Empire. The first of which is K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid that serves as Cassian’s partner and the designated zinger-delivery-system of the film.
Many of K-2SO’s lines are the first of many signs of trouble in paradise for Rogue One. Being a character without a moving mouth, K-2 is ripe for many of the ADR lines prevalent throughout the film. While our first interaction with him is tough and callous, as the film goes on his one-liners become goofier and goofier, changing his character to be like Interstellar’s TARS: a sarcasm bot.
My theory is that the first interaction, where he choke-slams Jyn to the ground after her rescue, was more in line with the character during principle photography. It’s this interaction that seems to stand out among the rest of the performance, which quickly reverts to witticisms to end scenes.
The other Imperial darling comes from Ben Mendelsohn who plays Krennic, the man at the helm of the Death Star the franchise seems unable to abandon. Mr. Mendelsohn is a talented actor (I liked him best as a heroine addict in Killing Them Softly), and we get to see some of this on display here. He goes from being a menacing commander to the Erso family in the opening, to cowering at the hands (and force grip, but more on this later) of Darth Vader. The most spirited exchange in the film is a yelling match between Krennic and Tarkin, who any fans of the franchise will know as the commander of the space station weapon in the original trilogy.
This range of emotion makes Krennic one of the most relatable characters in the film. He has among the most depth offered, especially compared to the bland motley crew gathered for the final heist. However, this depth cannot last, and he is soon relegated to the deus ex machina “Disney Bad Guy” role, wandering after and in front of the heroes from set piece to set piece.
When Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars, many feared the transition. Fans were left wondering how this might effect the franchise, and how Disney would treat the belle at the ball. Given two years into the reemergence of our beloved space opera, I think it’s pretty clear their strategy. Star Wars has become Marvelized.
Rogue One exists to serve a purpose. It’s a film that feels like the marketing was created before the screenplay, and in a way, that’s true. With reshoots and ADR done to restructure the film, everything was carved and sculpted to fit the puzzle rather than the other way around.
In an industry where cinema has become a byword for connecting brands to products, Star Wars seems to epitomize that concept. It’s a film created by marketing, for marketing. It’s a two-hour advertisement for itself, just barely a midcourse sorbet to remind you why you like Star Wars at all.
The weakest moments in the film are the points when this becomes most apparent. In the K-2SO lines tacked on the end of scenes. In the CGI appearances of Tarkin and Leia. In the cringe-worthy Darth Vader dad joke.
Even the trailers speak to what could have been: a more mythic and darker look at the Empire, rather than just a safe and clean action film.
The most lauded portion of the film comes in it’s “third act”, a term which even the lay-people of the audience have been classically conditioned to remember. In it, we get to see a montage of excellent, tight action scenes, as well as the deaths of many of the prominent characters. My favorite of which is a satisfying sequence of Darth Vader slicing through a corridor of Rebel soldiers like butter.
This “third-act-redeption” seems to be a characteristic of Mr. Edwards, whose previous blockbuster venture “Godzilla” suffered the same fate. And yet, even the giant monster fight (which was admittedly awesome) wasn’t enough to save that film. Like Rogue One, it was plagued by a weak story and weaker characters. And like Godzilla, I expect the long-term legacy of Rogue One to be a fun, but forgettable action film. Only time will tell if the lifeline of the Star Wars series, nostalgia, will be enough to salvage this picture from the Disney Vault.