When The Force Awakens came out last year, a lot of people complained about how derivative it was of A New Hope. While I didn’t think the film was perfect, that wasn’t one of my complaints. So my anticipation for Rogue One, which is not only a “stand alone” story but also one that, in the words of its own director Gareth Edwards, represents a shift from the tone of the rest of the series, was pretty high. Finally, a Star Wars prequel/sequel that could stand on its own. Rogue One makes a good effort, and it really succeeds on the visual front. But in almost every other way, I found it inferior to The Force Awakens.
First and foremost, the art and production design teams flawlessly recreate not just the look but also the FEEL of the original. Remember, Star Wars was one of the first sci-fi films to use a future setting that felt “lived in,” as opposed to the shiny, new futures used in things like Star Trek or most 1950s and 60s films. Through a combination of unobtrusive CGI (more on the obtrusive kind later) and practical effects, Rogue One looks like the special editions of the original trilogy should have. Using these tools, Edwards composes some stunning shots which rival A New Hope’s iconic twin moons: an opening scene featuring stark white uniforms and green grasss against black sands, a Star Destroyer hovering over a city, rebel ships being knocked out of hyperspace by a Star Destroyer, and the Death Star rising over a planet (and even some that were cut, such as our heroine facing down a TIE Fighter).
If it were just about looks, Rogue One would easily be the best Star Wars film ever made. But when it comes to characters and plot, it falls way short. It’s hard to believe I complained about three extraneous characters in The Force Awakens when Rogue One features dozens. It’s no wonder that even our leads get spotty or even nonexistent back stories. All appear to be tortured, but we never really see what they did to become so tortured, and none of them ever share anything that’s not exposition or cliche. The sole highlight in Alan Tudyk’s droll droid (and he can rest easy that he’s not Rogue One’s Jar Jar Binks). And I haven’t even mentioned the super-creepy CGI recreations of Peter Cushing and young Carrie Fisher which made me feel like I was watching a very expensive Star Wars video game cut scene.
One of the reasons that The Force Awakens’ and A New Hope’s plot similarities didn’t bother me is that I’m of the mindset that there are only so many stories out there; the difference is in how you tell them. Writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy did the best they could with ILM special effects technician John Knoll’s original story, but whereas Lawrence Kasdan’s script for The Force Awakens gave me goosebumps with Han Solo’s “It’s true, all of it” monologue, Rogue One delivers clunkers like “Rebellions are built on hope” with regularity. Rest assured, anything that sounds vaguely profound is repeated at least once more by another character.
The direction also lurches a bit, mainly from set piece to set piece. In one minute, it’s a gritty urban war film (shot by Greig Fraser, the DOP of Zero Dark Thirty). In the next, it’s a corny Star Wars spin off with a blind Jedi wannabe and his gun-toting protector. And while the final battle is thrilling, it never really sets up its geography properly – despite the fact it takes place on a circular base and the bad guys can literally watch it unfold from above – or explains how a dozen rebels appear to be hundreds. More than anything, it recalls the final gunfight of Three Amigos.
It’s possible not all of this is the director or writers’ faults. There were extensive reshoots – although not to add anti-Trump scenes in, as the inevitable moron backlash claimed – and it appears that a lot was left on the cutting room floor. This may explain the missing motivation, some confusing character relationships, the murky action scene geography, and the tonal shifts.
But in some ways, Rogue One was doomed. Unlike even the prequels, its responsibility to get to from A to B is practical demanded by the Star Wars narrative. It could’ve gotten there in a lot of different ways: fun heist a la Ocean’s 11, gritty spy flick a la Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or throwback war film like The Dirty Dozen. Someone along the way decided it should do all three. That said, I have a feeling that the director’s cut (or subsequent fan-made assembly cut) might be worth seeing.