This review was originally featured on The Film Yap.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is something of a beast. Simultaneously risky and familiar, it’s the first film entry of the Star Wars universe to not focus on the Skywalker family. It’s a prequel but not, its own story but not. In many ways, it has more in common with Star Wars Rebels, an animated children’s show set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, than it does with the original trilogy of movies. Rogue One is an exciting entry into the Star Wars universe … but at the same time, it’s not.
Rogue One tells the story that the opening crawl of Star Wars: A New Hope summarizes in a few lines. In the midst of a galactic civil war, a group of rebels scores the Alliance’s first victory against the Empire by stealing the plans to the Death Star and smuggling them to Princess Leia.
That group of rebels is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the fugitive daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the man who designed the Death Star, and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a captain of intelligence for the Rebellion. Filling out the group is a blind believer of the Force (Donnie Yen), his more practical protector (Wen Jiang), an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) and a reprogrammed Imperial droid who says whatever comes into his circuits (Alan Tudyk). Rounding out the cast is Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a militant rebel who leads a splinter group not connected to the Alliance, and Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the Imperial bureaucrat responsible for the creation of the Death Star.
Going into Rogue One, you know how it’s going to end. A clever script would try to trick you and keep you on your toes on the way there, but the sad truth is that Rogue One lacks a good script, and only has a marginally interesting story. If, from my description of the characters, you’d guess that Jyn’s group of rebels is a group from the start of the movie, you’d be wrong: The first act wastes a lot of time getting the gang together, which means that the rest of the movie lacks an emotional core as the characters have no real connection to one another.
So, by the time the second and third acts roll around, things just … happen. Through a mixture of poor writing and poor editing, what should be an emotionally devastating war movie falls pretty flat, which is unfortunate to say the least. Even though you know from the start how Rogue One ends, you should care one way or another how the story takes you there. The film’s director, Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla), and its writers, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, never find a way to do that. Michael Giacchino comes close with his excellent score, which is a worthy companion to John Williams’ scores of movies past, but the actual constructors of Rogue One seem to be more concerned with making it look like a Star Wars movie without making it feel like one.
This is particularly disappointing when it comes to Jyn Erso, who had more personality in the trailers than she does in the actual movie. That now iconic line of hers, “I rebel?” Mind-boggingly nowhere to be found in Rogue One. Without it, Jyn kind of just floats from place to place with no internal reasoning for her actions, with the exception of the pretty basic and overused “search for her father” trope. That also causes her to fall under my least favorite type of action heroine, the one purely motivated by daddy issues, but I’m willing to let it slide here.
As a franchise, Star Wars has focused pretty exclusively on father / son relationships (with the exception of Anakin and his mother in the prequels, mostly because Anakin is a magical Jesus Jedi baby who never had a biological father, but we don’t talk about that), and it’s nice to see a Star Wars movie that shows a father / daughter relationship instead. It also helps that Jyn isn’t blinded by her love for her father and that he isn’t actually evil, both of which are common in stories with daddy issues. Jyn and Galen truly love each other, and that love is the closest thing to an emotional core this movie has to offer.
It probably sounds like I’m being harsh on Rogue One. I am, but as my husband pointed out last night while he was compiling his own, much harsher review, it’s only because we love Star Wars so much, and because there’s no good reason for Rogue One to not be great. My closest guess for the muddled finished project is that too many people second-guessed themselves as they were making it. It feels like they wanted to play it safe, so they created a group of characters the audience can’t and shouldn’t get attached to, and threw in about a million references to Rebels and A New Hope as a distraction. (Some of these throwbacks are delightful, but a couple are truly unnerving in ways you have to see to believe.)
And that isn’t to say there’s nothing to love in this movie. Luna manages to make an underwritten character supremely captivating, and I can only hope Disney capitalizes on that by giving Cassian his own books or comics. Tudyk brings some much-needed humor as K-2S0, and though he’s underused, Mikkelsen adds weight by simply being Mikkelsen. Many of the visuals are breathtaking, and Edwards plays with scope in interesting and cinematic ways. And, as I mentioned before, Giacchino kills it with the music.
As a whole, and despite the movie itself, I enjoyed the experience of Rogue One. I enjoyed sitting a few seats down from two separate groups of boys who, before the movie started, were both trying to figure out who Rey’s parents are. I enjoyed seeing one of those boys throw his arms in the air after Cassian did something heroic, and I enjoyed the cheering when Darth Vader made his chilling entrance.
If 10 Star Wars movies have shown me anything, it’s that every new iteration seems to connect more with its younger audience than its older one. My uncles collected Star Wars action figures when the original trilogy came out, but I’m not sure my grandparents knew what all the fuss was about. I was 8 when The Phantom Menace came out, and I loved every minute of it, talked about it extensively and annoyed my parents to no end. My cousin was 6 last year when The Force Awakens came out, and she loved it in a way I couldn’t because she only saw the story, while I was old enough to see and be disappointed by the movie’s flaws.
I think Rogue One will be the same. Although video games have surely introduced younger audiences to the concept of war, part of me feels like this will be their first true war movie. Rogue One feels like a longer, more adult episode of Star Wars Rebels, which does a pretty good job exploring the effects of war on people and relationships but not the harsh realities of it. In a way, Rogue One sort of does the opposite: It’s brutal but emotionally hollow for an adult; maybe for a kid who’s more accustomed to filling in narrative gaps with her imagination, like I did with the prequels, it’ll be more affecting. Maybe that kid will feel the sorrow at the end of the movie that I didn’t but wished I could.
For that reason if nothing else, I don’t mind that I didn’t love Rogue One. If one kid out there gets as obsessed with Jyn Erso as I did with Queen Amidala, then I’d say it’s worth it, flaws and all.