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.
Design aside though, Rogue One is far too slavishly devoted to its source material. In the first scene, when Erso’s daughter Jyn (played as an adult by Felicity Jones) hides in a bunker and the troopers just sort of walk past it (“Oops, we can’t see her, she must be gone”), you wonder, “Don’t they have some kind of infrared technology to detect heat?” Even Predator had that. If the story needs Jyn to escape in this scene, fine, but there are better ways to explain it. To paraphrase Rob Lowe’s character in Thank You For Smoking, that’s one line of dialogue. “Oh, good thing we invented the such-and-such.”
To just not address things like that is lazy storytelling, and it’s an issue throughout Rogue One. We’re likewise expected to believe that in a world where there’s a giant metal moon that can vaporize planets with a crystal-powered laser beam (that’s right, I said crystals), the architectural blueprint files for said metal moon are so big that they’re stored on a textbook-sized laser disc and can only be transported via giant satellite dish. That made sense in the ’70s, but in 2016, maybe take a slightly different approach?
And even accepting that, Rogue One‘s writers really couldn’t figure out how to write a story that didn’t involve the closing of a portal and a giant telescope pointed at the sky? Hello, every superhero or sci-fi action movie of the past 15 years. Come on, Disney, you had the population of a small country working on this thing, do better.
And speaking of narrative laziness, there is no more lazy an action movie crutch than minor characters bravely committing suicide to sacrifice themselves for the major ones. There’s so much heroic suicide in Rogue One that it almost feels like ISIS propaganda. Just replace “the Force is with me” with “Allahu Akhbar” and you’re there (if you’re groaning at this, just wait until the “The Empire Is Trump!” thinkpieces hit). These characters suicide with such small provocation that you get the sense that someone would self immolate just to keep Jyn’s coffee warm.
Above all though, Rogue One is so reverent to the larger Star Wars universe that it can’t become its own thing. It’s fan fiction. These storytellers seem to think that 10 minutes of screen time is better devoted to explaining why Han Solo says “Never tell me the odds!” or why Episode IV is called “A New Hope” (things which, again, demonstrably didn’t need require explanation for the past 30 years) than to tweaking the hokier elements of its own story. When characters we know, like Darth Vader or Grand Moff Tarkin show up, they invariably look cheap and chintzy compared to everything else.
With a world this well-executed, it wouldn’t have required much. Just a few tweaks here and there to knock Rogue One‘s path off the hoariest, most on-the-nose sci-fi tropes, where good guys scream “Nooooo!” when their friends die, minor characters throw themselves on the gears of the machinery, and characters inexplicably explain their entire plan to their nemeses in the climactic scene. One well-placed line here or there could’ve pre-empted the face palm reaction, but Rogue One doesn’t bother, and that’s why it manages to be disappointing even as it’s reminding you what’s great about Star Wars (accomplishing, again, something the prequels never did). If you can get excited about the world building alone, Rogue One will be fine. Like a great Star Wars tribute band, or a snack to tide you over between meals. But this isn’t a movie that stands on its own (which a parallel storyline might’ve accomplished). At best, it’s an expanded edition.