You want to click the link below before you read the actual meat of this review. Because, y’know, it’s fun.
Writing about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this far after its release (but spurred by it being the first number-one box office winner of 2017 during its long and fast run up the film release records) is a great big bitch. Because, despite the pretty divided attitudes of the film, I really don’t think I have any new opinion to bring to the table. I truly deeply madly do not think I do. But I can at least start up with a summary of my views towards the film that I think most people can recognize and agree with:
When it came to atmosphere and scale, especially towards a Star Wars movie that focuses on the construction and revelation of the Death Star with a focus on ragtag militia response, it was a remarkably inspired and smart choice to go with the director of the recent American Godzilla, Gareth Edwards. I don’t think I need to expound upon how it would make sense for a guy who just made a movie about giant monsters lifting and towering menacingly over cities before bring about their fiery destruction to move on to a movie largely focused on the gigantic technological terror that is the Death Star and, man, is this the biggest and most dangerous the Death Star has ever felt as a presence since the original Star Wars declared “that’s no moon…”. This is a movie that uses the Death Star as its own big deadly monster, ready to be awakened.
When it comes to the development of character and plot… well… I wouldn’t say Edwards, once again remembering him as the director of the 2014 Godzilla, was the worst option, but that’s certainly not the choice I would have gone with (his more character-based debut Monsters might have been worthwhile proof of his ability, but I honestly don’t remember much from that movie since I saw it half a decade ago). And Rogue One does not prove that intuition wrong either. The writing here originally by Chris Weitz (whose background of American Pie and Twilight films with his brother were not promising) could very well have been affected by the notorious post-production involvement of Tony Gilroy (who allegedly had almost as much authority on the project as Edwards as a well-known figure in Hollywood and is rewarded with a co-writing credit with Weitz), but let’s be real, looking at the film we have as it might have looked on paper… it’s rushed in terms of build-up until the final third where it spends more time than it should backloading itself up with a whole lotta fan service (though it is still admittedly an extremely fantastic final third that I’ll get into later) and the characters are so flat and personified by one-word descriptions that you might have gotten just scenery to play the roles as their dialogue would demand and STILL give performances that would satisfy a writer who is aware of how empty this script is, which Weitz is decidedly not. The famous Donnie Yen character, force-sensitive blind non-Jedi Chirrut, does one thing to aid the plot the whole movie, his armed wingman Baze (Jiang Wen) even less. Our protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is manipulated by the plot rather than vice versa and whereas Daisy Ridley gave a live-wire performance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens to sell her character, Jones kind of just sits and pleads with everyone around her. Her arc and that of co-protagonist Rebel assassin Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is malformed and her relationship with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), whom the Rebels send her to acquire intelligence on, nonexistent (I would trade the better of the two Darth Vader appearances in this film, a highlight of the movie and franchise, for one or two flashback scenes of Saw raising child Jyn like we’re meant to believe).
Star Wars, like I have said before, has always been a franchise where the scripts were frankly weak, but Rogue One is more than weak. A whole potential conflict in which Saw’s prisoner, the defected Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), is tortured via psychic Goosebumps-character-looking alien that is dropped and never discussed again. This sort of narrative incompetence has not been seen since Attack of the Clones, I’d dare to say. There is no greater sign of the obvious rushing of the cash cow that this spin-off series is than the fact that its script reads like a first draft, like ideas were hung on to that should have been dropped and surrogates put in place of characters they figure they’d work on later with the bare string of plot points.
So here I am with my big thesis on how to approach Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: If you are in this for story and characters, you will loathe this movie. No other way around it (well, potentially one that I’ll get at). But if you are in this for atmosphere and spectacle and scale, you will probably feel like you got your money’s worth.
I won’t be coy. I really really really enjoyed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. So it should be pretty clear which of those two sides I am on.
And I can’t take seriously any claim that Rogue One doesn’t supply atmosphere in full demand. Every single set physical and worn out like the tired stylizations of George Lucas’ original 1977 production. The desert planet Jedha is a lot more distinguishable as its own culture and isolated society as opposed to Tatooine than The Force Awakens‘ Jakku, the industrial elements of Ring of Kafrene feel like a nightmare of mechanical influences for the few seconds we see it. I swear there’s two gorgeous scenes – but only two, this is still simply popcorn cinema – where the constant motion of either wind or rain between two figures in dusk or night make the great Kurosawa Akira actually felt as an on-screen presence more than Lucas or Abrams could hope to accomplish, and both scenes involved Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), Jyn’s father and the target of her mission with Cassian.
And the action. Hoo boy, the action! If the final 30 minutes of Rogue One does not do anything for you, you may be clinically dead. Because by God, there is a yet another brilliant three-way climax like Return of the Jedi accomplished before it involving ground forces desperately pushing into each other on a beautiful beach base, intense dogfighting in the space above (with one my favorite moments being a big ship’s arrival flat-out rejecting a smaller ship’s attempt to hyperdrive) between star ships spinning and moving and being experiential as all hell with the way the effects play with dimension and color, and of course the obvious espionage element of Jyn and Cassian attempting to get certain plans most Star Wars fans would be aware of. The awareness of these three things happening at the same time gives a frenzy to the climax of the action that translates to urgency, something the mission entails and one of the moments the movie’s atmosphere serves as storytelling.
Ah, that’s the thing about Rogue One‘s spectacle. It serves a greater purpose to the story than even a good script could possibly have. From early on, we’re made aware of the Death Star’s existence (and Galen’s hand in building it) and there’s no such thing as a promise for its destructive capabilities in this film… we’re almost just as quickly witness to its power in a manner surprising even for people who are already fans of the franchise. And keep in mind, this is absolutely a movie that rewards people who already know what’s happening in the 1977 film after this movie closes. But nevertheless, the Death Star is already a symbol of the doom to its characters even for newcomers. Does this make this “the war movie” people claim Rogue One to be? Hell no, not least of which because there’s still a romantic and swashbuckling flavor to most of the violence we see and an epic gravitas to each individual moment that does not mesh with the unconcerned inhumanity of a REAL war film. This is a war film as much as Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller. But it’s still damn good popcorn cinema.
And of course, it still earns our concern for those characters. Yeah, I said they’re badly written and they are. But this film assembles a dream team of a cast able to imbue enough of their own personality to do the extra heavy lifting needed to make these characters alive and likable, save for Jones and Luna (and in Luna’s case, it might not even be his fault, but his face will forever be way too boyish for me to take it seriously as grizzled disillusioned soldier). Yen and Wen have phenomenal chemistry together that I’m sure everybody walked out wondering why they don’t have their own movie, while the ever reliable pathetic and desperate villain actor Ben Mendelsohn as the primary antagonist Orson Krennic is the standout for me as a living man full of pretensions that are struggling to outweigh his fears of his superiors. And Mendelsohn doesn’t have it easy when that superior foil he acts against is a CGI uncanny valley zombie of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, even though the inhuman element adds to the coldness of Tarkin’s presence.
The movie is rough. It totally is. I think this review made a lot of it sound like a jumble of moments, but it’s also proved to be a lot of fun for somebody like me who just wanted an avenue to live in the world of Star Wars like no other movie afforded us to. I don’t think any other movie save for The Phantom Menace truly opened us up to how expansive and large the universe is between all of Rogue One‘s locations and as an overall result of both its strengths and flaws, Rogue One feels to me like one moment where I actually got inhabit the galaxy rather than witness a story. That’s something I never knew I actually wanted from a franchise of pulp and it makes me a bit more eager to see how much more Disney, Kathleen Kennedy, and LucasFilm begin to rebuild the blank space they left where the Extended Universe of Star Wars once was.