I laughed to myself intermittently throughout the ten minutes or so preceding AMC’s ten o’clock showing of Rogue One the Saturday before last, not an empty seat in the theater. This duration was routinely filled with previews for other upcoming titles, an item of modern cinema I’ve always thought to be a little obtrusive — in this case, ridiculously so. To me, showing commercials before a Star Wars movie is about as meaningful as trying to sell used station wagons in a sports car dealership. I appreciate the effort, but it’s hardly what we’re here to see, no?
I would’ve liked to review Rogue One as a “normal” movie, but it’s impossible not to acknowledge the massive economic barrier distinguishing its kind from other box office hits that are simply well off. Star Wars is the sports car of today’s movies — the luxury it garners is derived from consumer tastes rather than from its efficiency or durability. The gauge for its “success” is becoming thin and numerical, and it’s hard not to notice it after Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy announced that fans can expect a Star Wars movie every year for the rest of their lives (an idea I doubt many people took the way she wanted them to receive it). Sure, you may smell hyperbole, but parent company Lucasfilm shows no sign of slowing down as its release of Rogue One, a feature length film that peels away from the original Skywalker plotline almost entirely, hits theaters.
Reflecting on the intergalactic adventure of late last year — a little something called The Force Awakens — I confess that my initial impression of the film was perhaps overly ecstatic, considering that some of the movie’s more audience-friendly attractants may not have been as organic as I had primarily perceived. It’s a minor flaw that I’ve been able to study and accept; I will still support that the first Star Wars film in ten years (and the first good one in over thirty-five) was more than worth the wait. It is nostalgic, yes, but in a good way, cheery, grandiose, and persuasive. If “Star Wars” ever meant anything to anyone, The Force Awakens went for broke trying to prove it.
A dangerously short period of time has passed since 2015’s strong installment, yet Rogue One director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) has wasted none of it while dialing back the romanticism of J.J. Abrams’ Episode 7. Rogue One is what will surely be the materialistic counterpart to Awakens; being vaguely associated with the latter, the former hints at the Star Wars universe created before it, not in personal channels but in objective ones. Fans will point to the mechanized vehicles and weapons that have made George Lucas’ imagination recognizable, not the humanistic augmentation that has made it popular (even as strong actors such as Felicity Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, and Mads Mikkelsen bring their strength). It’s not a complete spiral from The Force Awakens, but it’s a surprising notch down nevertheless — it’s “eh,” neither good nor bad. That’s passable now, but it could spell some mediocre news for the future of this franchise, which might be harder to revive creatively than Disney wants to believe.
I’ve spent a while deciding why I’m not blown away by this film. Perhaps the fact that I haven’t seen Rogue One more than once limits me from catching some of its subtle nuances (though I doubt it has many that would alter my view of it completely). The plot, as I see it, is plucked from only a line or two of dialogue from 1977’s A New Hope, the events of which Rogue One’s story immediately precedes. Jyn Erso (Jones) is a loner, held prisoner by Imperial forces when we meet her as a young woman (I’m unclear on how she came to be detained — likely more of a textual strategy, to state her mental toughness without going too much into detail). She is soon freed by rebels (the leader of which, Cassian, is played by Diego Luna), with whom she finds that her father (Mikkelsen), enlisted by the Imperials and taken from her at a young age, has hidden plans for the newly finished Death Star so that the de facto unit may find and transmit them to Rebel command. Without giving too much away, Rogue One’s conclusion sets us up for the familiar, a princess in distress and the throttle of the rebellion in the hands of a distant farm boy.
The structuring of this narrative hand-off is a bit wobbly. In discussion, I’ve been told that Rogue One offers answers to the questions that chronological gaps from the originals have left. I candidly disagree; if there were any before, there must have been fewer in supply than the claim supports. At the beginning of A New Hope, we are dropped into the heart of a political climate, the context of which is revealed to us in due time. It is a literary technique, not a mistake; the notion of Rogue One treats it as an error to be corrected and, in effect, would be expected to beat the bush in trying to reach a depth that its material intentionally does not provide.
The degree to which the feature explores its original motives, however, is merely skin deep. The premise is introduced rather prematurely, giving the script — co-written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (of the Bourne films) — a very narrow window to operate. The winding diversions used to prolong the finale can even be confusing at points (am I the only person who incorrectly thought that Jyn’s mission was to blow up the Death Star?).
Every gear that turns the story along must be given a name and a face, but not much else, even where it would help. Forest Whitaker has a role as a Rebel leader here, small and questionable. He supposedly has deep ties with Jyn, as the prologue suggests. Her unseen relationship with this father figure could, by current Lucasfilm standards, provoke a film of its own, as a brief encounter after years of separation retains enough emotional kick to rally her behind a selfless cause. Jones and Whitaker make what they can of the scene, but we haven’t seen anything that can make it stick.
Rogue One, for a film we already know the ending to, avoids the more grief-stricken sore of total predictability. That doesn’t, however, save it from being misguided. Edwards, as he did with Godzilla, shoots for a darker accent, with too impatient of a pace to firmly establish it. It isn’t the first Star Wars movie that has tried to do so; Revenge of the Sith (2005), as with the other prequels, gladly attempted to suck as much fun out of lightsabers as it possibly could. Those films were dull (and lame). Rogue One is better, quick enough to add relieving counterweights and react to its bleaker segments. An even better movie would’ve drawn the two forms out; what we often get is a muddled gray area, a face that’s hard to read.
The matters of character are even trickier; the physical balance of the ragtag team of heroes seems all too calculated, yet each individual of the ensemble (an otherwise sturdy cast of Jones, Luna, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, and Riz Ahmed) amounts accordingly to how well he or she can shoot a gun or swing a blade. To know someone’s favorite color would’ve been nice. Further, as the passage of time in Production Land poses the problem of aging, computer generation is used to replicate time-capsuled versions of selected personnel from the original trilogy. This technology, admittedly, is impressive, though I’m convinced it will be a long time before it has completely evolved from “realistic” to “human.”
Marvel, Disney’s other cash grabbing moniker (superheroes instead of stormtroopers), has begun to show some mold with its consistently unmemorable high budget comic films, churned out like clockwork. If Rogue One is mirroring the early symptoms of Marvel-itis, it’s at least undergoing a somewhat more appealing phase. I can say confidently that this is the best any Star Wars movie has looked. I’m not a big advocate of visual effects being held over plot, but it shouldn’t go without being said that Edwards truly fills the graphic space within a daring climactic battle reminiscent of Bridge On the River Kwai, taking place on a tropical lagoon. This takes up the last half hour or so, and it’s the closest I came to accepting the picture.
Still, I walked out of the theater with mixed feelings. Within a year, I’ve viewed The Force Awakens four times, and a fifth wouldn’t be so unbearable. I’d be lying if I said I felt nearly the same about Rogue One. Perhaps it’s Disney’s intention; in five years, audiences will come back to see whatever adaptation of Star Wars the film juggernaut will have managed to produce (as long as it isn’t The Return of Jar Jar Binks). With a sufficiently rapid flow, perhaps Lucasfilm hopes to tease us from quality and into quantity.
I remain hopeful. For the time being, for as small as it feels, Rogue One has a true ending, one that, apparently, closes all avenues it begins with. It respects its place in the timeline it belongs in and doesn’t mean to overstay its welcome. I would’ve liked for the movie to realize its own ending, but it has one that I can respect.
Block Rating: ★ ★ 1/2