“Rebellions are built on hope.”
In the darkest of times, hope can feel as if it’s in short supply. But should even the tiniest glimmer of light penetrate the oppressive darkness, the impossible can seen possible again. All may not be lost, and hope can inspire great things. That glimmer of hope is at the heart of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first of the Star Wars anthology films — set in the same general universe, but removed from the continuing storyline of Luke Skywalker and those directly around him.
Taking place almost immediately before Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One follows a ragtag band of rebels out to steal the plans for the world-killing Death Star, and strike a serious blow for the resistance in the process. The set-up has all the markings of a great war movie set behind enemy lines, coupled with a tiny bit of a heist narrative. It should, in theory, be exciting. So it’s almost crushing to watch the film unfold in the ramshackle, flat manner it does.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a criminal recently sprung from prison. She’s kept to herself and adopted a false identity for protection, because she happens to be the daughter of one of the Empire’s science officers, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Jyn hasn’t seen her father in years — not since the man was spirited away by the nefarious Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, criminally underused here, glorious though his cape may be). Krennic has forced Galen to help build the Death Star, and now, with the doomsday device nearly operational, Galen has sent out a last-minute plea to the Rebellion for help. The Rebellion recruits Jyn to help get to her estranged father, and a motley group slowly assembles around her: Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a dashing captain with orders he’s not quite ready to divulge to Jyn; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a jittery pilot who defects from the Empire once he realizes how evil they are; Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blink monk well-versed in the ways of the Force and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), Chirrut’s constant companion and semi-protector; and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed droid with a droll sense of humor.
Rogue One should be commended for assembling one of the most diverse main casts in Star Wars (and general blockbuster) history, while also again focusing on a strong female lead, a la The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, while all of these actors are wonderful, the character’s they’re stuck playing are not. Aside from Donnie Yen’s bad ass blind man and Alan Tudyk’s comic-relief droid, the characters of Rogue One come up short. Jyn in particular is woefully whisper-thin in terms of characterization — one gets the sense that there was a wealth of backstory and development cut, an assumption that’s partially confirmed by the fact that more than 50% of the material that appeared in trailers for Rogue One didn’t make it into the theatrical release. Jones does her best to breathe life into Jyn, and a scene where the character breaks down while watching a hologram message from her long-lost father is handled adeptly by Jones’ via heartbreaking facial expressions. But the real sense of emotion isn’t there — this scene, and other scenes like it, are curiously void of punch. Moments that should soar just sort of lay there, unable to get off the ground. There’s nothing here that even comes close to the powerful moment in The Force Awakens when Rey uses the Force to summon Luke’s lightsaber to her hand.
Rogue One only truly comes to life in its big action set-pieces. With Godzilla and now this film, director Gareth Edwards* proves that while he apparently has no idea how to handle quiet character moments, he has an amazing grasp on scope and scale when staging action. Rogue One moves at a steady clip, jumping from planet to planet, and it feels most exciting when it’s showing us things that feel fresh and new to the Star Wars universe. When Krennic first tests out the Death Star, Edwards frames the scene from above, showing a mushroom cloud of color blooming from the spot targeted by the Death Star’s dayglo green beams. “Oh it’s beautiful,” Krennic observes, and he’s not kidding. The mass destruction here truly looks stunning, more so than any blockbuster in the last few years. The film climaxes on a palm tree laden planet awash in crystal clear oceans, and features one of the most intense battles in Star Wars history, replete with troops storming the beaches as AT-AT walkers loom overhead like elder gods. It’s stirring stuff, as is a scene near the end where Edwards manages to make Darth Vader terrifying again, courtesy of a sequence where the Sith Lord comes off seeming like Jason Voorhees. But as rousing as these moments can be, they’re not enough to remedy the lethargy that plagues the overall film.
Those looking for a hopeful parallel to our current, troubling political climate may find strength in moments like when Jyn gives an impassioned speech about no longer allowing the Empire to continue its increasingly vile ways, even if resistance seems hopeless. And there’s a knowing moment near the beginning where Galen tells Krennic, “You’re confusing peace with terror.” But it’s hard to find much comfort in these moments since, unlike in our real, current existence, we know exactly where this story is going. Perhaps that’s Rogue One’s greatest weakness: for all its attempts to tell its own tale outside the current Star Wars storyline, it’s hampered by the fact that it must play by the established rules of the franchise. Rogue One could’ve alleviated the inevitability of its destination by spicing up the journey. Alas, this is a trip stuck on autopilot.
*Note: Rumors abound that Tony Gilroy was brought in to handle either minor or excessive re-shoots for the film. To the film’s credit, the re-shoots never appear obvious, although it is apparent that large chunks of the original story have be excised.