Every Star Wars film is an event. Every Star Wars film promises action, adventure, the spirit of 1930s serial with a touch of age old mysticism. Star Wars has become so influential that we can have a debate as to whether Jediism can be a true religion. Star Wars has a lot going for it, both in the past and now with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which last year became one of the biggest films of all time. This new Star Wars film is different (or different enough): Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first in a series of Star Wars films that will tell stories away from the Skywalker Soap Opera and tell the story of the wider Star Wars universe. Disney (via Lucasfilm) has decided to connect to the fans in a different way in this new Marvel landscape: one of invention and one of play. It is the world that we’ve imagined before and after each Episode, a world of pure imagination. This film can play around with concepts created by George Lucas et al, opening up this universe to different tangents.
That’s what we would hope for anyway.
Acting as a direct prequel to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One tells the story of the Rebel Alliance, and how they got the key piece of information to start taking the Empire (a group of intergalactic fascists); the plans for the Death Star, a weapon of such immense power that it can destroy entire planets, envisioned by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendlesohn), but created by head engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). However, Galen, in his plan to subvert the empire, placed a particular flaw in the Death Star in the blueprints. For the alliance to get them, they’ll have to use Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a rough intelligence officer not afraid to kill, to convince Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), estranged daughter of Galen and to the rebel cause to find them, not helped by her extremist rebel foster father Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) standing in the way. They’re soon joined by blind warrior monk Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Îmwe’s machine-gun toting buddy Malbus (Jiang Wen. An aside: the film he directed that I’ve seen, Let the Bullets Fly, still confounds me), a turn-coat Imperial cargo pilot Rook (Riz Ahmed), and K-2SO, a sassy reprogrammed Imperial battle droid (Alan Tudyk). They’re grey characters, fighting evil for the good of us all.
For the many fans of Star Wars, there is a lot to enjoy, like comfortable familiar references, characters you’ve long loved/hated returning, abundance of adventure and action, and for progressive audiences, a nicely diverse cast of characters within this universe (albeit mostly male). And for some fans, it is been the film have been long waiting for, not just to plug a planet shaped plot hole in A New Hope, but a Star Wars film with a difference. It can tell the story of the people on the ground, the people who have been fighting the battle before the name Skywalker appeared. However, what it seems like in director Gareth Edwards’ view (or its myriad of writers and producers who may have played a bigger role than publicly stated), it means to rehash similar tropes from Star Wars and other sci-fi properties. Star Wars always had its hand within classic film genre, and it is the same Rogue One, as it has the key parts for it to be a successful war film (a la the 50s/60s), but it is really the sum of its parts when the feel of the film is more or less insubstantial and more simulated fun/dread. It has a particular great note here and there, but it certainly doesn’t make a substantial emotional image, with its morally dubious characters being undermined by the narrative, their challenges are undercut by circumstances that make them good, or their emotional journeys feeling like meaningless gestures.
For example, Cassian is shown to be an effective operative, bending the rules to complete the mission, but we can never believe he is truly a rough dealer, whether he feels remorse or remains motionless as he can kill friend/comrade or the enemy. We’re never challenged to find the good, when he’s seems just good and not prone to mistakes. Jyn is shown to be rebellious towards authority,but we never really engage with why she feels that way (we are told though, many times) except through very, very few turgid speeches. Jones’ good performance is used onto a character without a developing arc from rebellious to rebel, so it feels more like a mechanic temper tantrum. While the examples can continue in spoiler-like detail, Forest Whitaker’s character the best symbol of the film’s weakness: his character feels abruptly cut down, we see the scars but not the impact of them, and his relationship to Jyn is not explored deeply. His character (and many others) seem to exist because the creative team wanted them to, not because they should. If we can’t feel the cost or rely on Episode VI then they’re just using up our time, because that’s why we’ve come to see it.
Don’t get me wrong, there is many plus points on paper: it has many jokes that land well, the character of K-2SO feels heartfelt and funny (in spite of it being a cliche, see also: Blind Warrior Monk), the action is well done and dynamic (though X-Wing dogfights never do it for me), and the cinematography is just perfectly beautiful, with the right amount of grit and dirt. Really the film’s main problem is in making us care for the characters, and I mean deeply care for them. We should be feeling the moral ramifications of their decisions, of how important the journey is to them. Much of the original trilogy (and The Force Awakens) is based on the balance of good and evil, that characters act conflicted, making tough decisions and seeing their choices play out, but we never see/feel that. We see gloriously, detailed sets (and locations, the Maldives and Iceland look stunning), of distant and distinct worlds with their own narrative identities, but we see characters rush to and fro without a clear sense of why they’re doing things, outside of hating the Empire. The real kicker is seeing Ben Mendelsohn’s character being undercut at almost every turn by superiors, as it makes makes the film’s central battle feel a bit pointless when we don’t feel a tangible force to be reckoned with. When the narrative is this blurry, it makes A New Hope‘s simplistic narrative almost like the perfect recipe, and its iconography stands as a long shadow over this one (almost literally). Maybe one could be asking too much of something that is mainstream entertainment, but the film presents itself as a fresh take on Star Wars, it doesn’t feel like that.
Rogue One does not feel like a cash in, there is far too much creativity in the set design, filming and direction, as well as some admirable acting for it to be so. Rather, it is a film that struggles to find a point in of itself, it is a war film that still wants to be fun, but avoiding questions isn’t the right answer. The war film genre has had many struggle balancing the need to entertain as well as say ‘war is hell’, but it seems that this film doesn’t want us to judge too closely. We can love the idea of the film, but an idea can only get you this far.
RATING: TWO AND A HALF STARS.