A year ago, The Force Awakens was released, inaugurating a new era in the Star Wars franchise. The previous year, 2014, marked what could be the last year in human history in which no Star Wars film graces the big screen. Now, as 2016 ends, we have Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This is the first of the branded “anthology” films which explore characters, stories, and events outside the main “episodic” Star Wars films. Rogue One also marks the first Star Wars film with a director from the talent pool of what one might describe as Disney’s hunt for the new George Lucas. While director Gareth Edwards, Lucasfilm, and Disney, et al’s latest efforts are probably the best put forth since 1983’s Return of the Jedi (yes, Rogue One is better than The Force Awakens), the new film isn’t without serious flaws.
The movie is set in the run-up to the original 1977 film, and focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a roguish prisoner of the Empire and daughter to one of the Imperial war machine’s most accomplished scientists. Ousted from her shackles by the Rebel Alliance, she is sent to contact Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a former associate of the Ersos and a freedom fighter whose radical insurgent tactics apparently placed him at odds even with the Alliance. Jyn eventually forms a posse of companions to embark on a risky mission to steal the plans to the technological terror her father has designed for the Emperor, in a story that dovetails straight into the opening of Star Wars: A New Hope.
This film is an absolute fireworks show of great ideas; it manages to pull off the difficult task of telling a compelling story of which we essentially already know the ending. It wants to plunge us into a grittier Star Wars world than we have seen before, right into the soot-fuming machinations of an iconic galactic conflict’s deeper intrigue and espionage.
To boot, it features what are arguably the best Star Wars battle sequences yet, bringing the spirit of the old properly into the age of modern special effects. This movie wanted to place us firmly in the trenches and show us the D-Day of the Rebellion/Empire conflict. On this front, it delivered spectacularly.
So what could go wrong? The problem with Rogue One is that for all the film’s great ideas, for all the great atmosphere and spectacle, the film’s characters—always the audience’s portal into a story—never quite set right into an emotionally cohesive spine. The film leaps around lightyears, planet to planet, one place to the next, fragmenting into disarray and leaving its characters desperate to catch up. Jyn Erso goes from an apathetic small-time crook to the sole advocate of keeping the Rebellion from absolute surrender. This change feels sudden and dramatic. There is not much of hero’s journey here for her character, or if there is, its path is paved with nebulous emotional exchanges.
The characters all have their moments, but the drama often feels limited to a scene-by-scene basis; characterizations that appear of some import to the story often don’t go anywhere. For instance, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is a darker rebel operative than we’ve seen before. A spy and an assassin for the Alliance, his inner moral turmoil is captured quite well by the actor and brought to the surface at one juncture in the film, but peters out as the film progresses to its climax.
Similarly, Saw Gerrera, a rebel too violent for the Alliance, presented an opportunity to portray the Colonel Kurtz of a galaxy far, far, away. But the character is never given a moment to really shine, despite the wonderful gravitas of Forest Whitaker. He seems like the vestige of an idea, rather than a player in a solidified story.
Then there is the film’s villain, Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who is constantly having to fight being upstaged by the presence of other iconic Star Wars villains, such as a CGI’d Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin, and even Darth Vader himself. Krennic is, again, a good idea, with a good actor to back, but the story just doesn’t maximize the potential.
The film is, of course, the product of significant re-shoots at the behest of executives, the official story on which is that no alterations were made to the tone of the film’s original cut. Films do in fact often go through such re-shoots; it’s part of the process. The Force Awakens also had to do re-shoots. Still, one wonders whether these scripts are being given enough time in the oven, or if they are rolling cameras on what amount to first drafts. Underdevelopment aside, I hope Rogue One is immensely successful, as it contained a much needed spirit of creativity and something different, which I hope the Star Wars franchise can carry forward into the future.