I hadn’t read that much about Rogue One going in, and so I didn’t know where exactly it fell on the grand Star Wars timeline. This was partly out of general laziness, but partly because I didn’t really want to know. The hope was that I’d sit down and be transported, and either I wouldn’t care how the movie I was watching fit into the larger Star Wars universe, or I’d care so much that I’d rush home and look it up, or maybe even turn it into a graph in my very own Star Wars fan ‘zine (slash virtual reality experience).
Instead I sat down and saw a movie that relies heavily on and constantly references the other films, and as soon as I figured out where it fit in I mostly lost interest. To be sure, it had me for a while, and it does a lot of things right. But there’s an overriding superfluousness to the larger story that it can’t quite transcend. Rogue One is wonderful at capturing the feel of an old Star Wars movie — much better than the prequels, which mostly just made you sick of Star Wars — but the story is so bookended that it’s essentially a narrative dead end. Once you figure out where it lives (or maybe you already know), it loses the drive of what happens next and it becomes, essentially, a footnote. It explains things we’ve already seen and occasionally digresses, but it answers no questions and makes no forward progress. It’s treading water, though the pool is nice. For all its production design — which is pretty spectacular — there’s a glaring lack of newness that suffuses the entire thing.
If you’re just looking to be reminded of Star Wars, and a lot of people are, you could do a lot worse than Rogue One. Rogue One offers, at a basic level, a lot of cool shit to look at. And that’s mostly the basis of Star Wars as a phenomenon, since it was never really about narrative complexity anyway. Rogue One (which is not in 3D, hooray!) just plain looks expensive. It has the depth and textural contrast of a fine wardrobe, and it makes the prequels look like cheap costume jewelry by comparison.
If the constrained narrative makes Rogue One seem doomed from the start, the first 10 minutes offers an intriguing what could’ve been. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic has tracked escaped Empire scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to his hideout on one of Rogue One‘s 10 mostly irrelevant planet settings (did there really have to be so many?). Director Krennic is there to drag Erso back to space to finish the Death Star, but Erso has (naturally) turned to a quiet life of farming. The dialogue is about as cheesy as can be, and they do the usual agri-warrior dance from every action movie.
“Farming, Erso? You?” Krennic sneers.
“It’s a simple life,” Erso replies.
Is it though? I mean, I’m pretty sure farming is kind of hard. Of course, Rogue One isn’t the movie to question any pre-fab elements of the Hollywood hero’s journey, and in any case, Ben Mendelsohn in his white, SS-inspired cape uniform, walking across an expanse of damp volcanic soil flanked by black storm troopers (in giant codpieces, hee hee!) feels truly otherworldly. There’s such a striking contrast between Erso’s limp ponytail and rough-hewn robe and Krennic’s cream-colored, Gore-Tex cape getup and stiff, overworked hatlet that Rogue One hits that iconic note, immersive enough that you can overlook a little hokiness. Hokey is for Earth, we’re in a Star Wars movie now!
Surely production design and choreography cover for many of Rogue One‘s shortcomings. Whereas Yoda in the prequels looked like a crappy little pinball bouncing around a children’s video game, Rogue One has patient and composed enough action that all the pew-pewing (and there’s like 40 minutes of pew-pewing) actually feels pretty exciting. It feels cinematic, and that’s an impressive achievement at a time when CGI space battles are about as novel as car commercials. And it’s so full of data to analyze that it’s hard to get bored. For instance, there’s the way a character’s good or badness seems to be telegraphed by the stiffness of their collar. Starched Nehrus for bad guys, kimono necks and floppy bomber jackets for good guys. Likewise, you can tell Star Wars came out in the ’70s, probably the only decade in which the good guys would’ve shown up wearing burnt orange. But unlike your grandma’s living room, there’s a nice contrast between the blacks, creams, and greys of the Empire and the warm oranges and Earth tones of the Rebel Alliance that doesn’t feel dated.