To start off, part of me wanted to hate Rogue One. I don’t know why other than I tend to want to hate something when everyone sings its praises (except for La La Land which I love). I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan, but I enjoyed The Force Awakens, so I don’t exactly know what it is that I was so ready to dislike about this film. I think, first of all, it felt like a very ordinary big budget action movie from the trailer. Just because there were stormtroopers and allusions to the greater story universe of Star Wars didn’t mean I would like it more than if it just had a good story.
I really don’t like when films sell you on something that’s hardly integral to the plot. It’s the same reason a lot of sequels fail, and the same can be said with remakes as well as films that clearly try to capitalize on something they think audiences like. An example of this is the Divergent series, an adaptation of a young adult series of books that tried to follow in the footsteps of The Hunger Games. Movies like that have a few broad takeaways from the movies that work, and they try to apply it to their own movie. Often they miss the mark completely, ignoring what was good about the original work. I mean, this can all be said for the Star Wars prequels too.
So with Rogue One, I felt like it was a story that meant nothing to me and to the Star Wars story. Of course it did mean something to the greater story, but it’s really just about a group of people stealing something that we know they get. It’s just a simple story that was forced into this universe. So when I heard about this film and saw the previews, it felt like they were selling stormtroopers, Darth Vader and other familiar symbols from the Star Wars films. In other words, they weren’t advertising a great story, just their access to these familiar toys.
And I don’t know how I feel about the movie as a standalone film. I really hated the first half of the film, but I loved the second half. That’s problematic because it’s not often that you can love something that is built on a foundation that you detest. Really, you usually need interesting characters you can root for or at least engage with, and I don’t think this story had that. Even so, I found myself entertained by the action in the final battle (which fills up almost the entire second half of the film). This just makes me feel like the first half of the story is completely unnecessary. It’s full of very clear plot machinations, moving the pieces around and setting up the final battle. We all know the battle is coming, so we’re just waiting, and we have to wait a while.
So this is where the Star Wars benefit comes in. This story has the advantage of being a Star Wars film and thus not having to set up this complicated world from scratch, and it’s also not weighed down by the inevitability of a sequel (because it leads directly into A New Hope) so there are actual consequences. In The Force Awakens, for example, you could be pretty confident that Rey, Finn and Poe would survive to see the next film because you need your heroes to keep making those films.
So this movie had a lot working in its favor. For fans of the entire series, the first half of the film is mostly pointless. I may be a little too critical, but the whole thing felt forced and obvious. There were a couple moments of humor and some nice enough action, but it really felt like the film was holding back, waiting to burst in that final battle. This first part of the film introduces us to all the main characters, whose names I’ve pretty much completely forgotten. You can tell the story is lazy and uninterested with itself because we meet our adult hero when she’s just a child, watching her mother get shot and her father taken prisoner. Then we cut to the present and she’s an adult (Felicity Jones). Rather than develop her character, showing multiple facets to her personality, the film shoves a tragic backstory (that we’ve seen countless times in movies) in our face, hoping that’ll get us rooting for her almost immediately. The first hour is full of scenes like this that check things off a list of necessary exposition.
So we meet Jyn Erso (Jones), a rebel who’s pretty pesky. She is recruited to join Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a robot, K-2S) (Alan Tudyk) on a mission to find her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Galen designed the Death Star for the Imperials, but he didn’t want to! He designed it so that there would be an exploitable weakness, and then he transmitted a message to Jyn, telling her what he did. He says she needs to steal the plans (I think that’s how it went down) so the Death Star can be brought down.
Jyn and Andor track down Galen, and Andor has orders to kill the man, but of course Jyn does not know this. After some action occurs, Jyn is able to see her father (first time in fifteen years) right before he takes his dying breath. Watching a daughter cry over her father’s dead body has never felt so routine before. It’s a scene in a number of films, and I didn’t care that he died. I didn’t care because his death is just part of the plot, so we can move onto the next thing. Jyn gets mad at Andor for trying to kill Galen. He points out that he chose not to kill him, and he fires back at her, explaining that everyone has lost something in this rebellion, and now she has too. So there you go, she had to lose her father so that could be pointed out to her. It makes a lot of sense in the story, but this all feels so rushed through so we could move onto the meat of the story, the final battle that takes place on a planet called Scarif. Jyn, Andor and a rag tag group of men lead the fight to steal the plans for the Death Star despite the rebel alliance not approving Jyn’s plan. They’ve gone rogue.
This battle is impressive, both visually and in terms of how it balances multiple threads, multiple characters and how those individual battles intertwine. The action is coherent, exciting, and there’s something pleasing about watching the rebels push one giant Imperial ship into another, crashing both into the planet, destroying the protective shield around the whole planet. Maybe it’s because those Imperial ships are so familiar from the very first Star Wars film, and seeing them utterly destroyed is kind of pleasant. I don’t exactly know why, but maybe it’s because it really felt like the story was going all out. Whereas in the first hour of the movie it felt like the script handled the main characters with delicacy, the second hour took the gloves off and made shit happen. Things rose, and then they fell, and that collision is what the story is based around.
I don’t know what the average moviegoer knew about this movie, but we were told that it’s the prequel to A New Hope. I was pretty sure a bunch of the characters would die, though the film had much of the feel of The Force Awakens (similar character moments, cinematography, musical score). So I give credit to director Gareth Edwards and the writers for letting the main characters die. It’s important that they die because were they to live, their absence from the rest of the films would feel odd. Their deaths represents the rebel sacrifice in this war and adds weight to the rest of the films.
But the film still treated the deaths of the ensemble cast like a line of dominoes. Each character accomplished one last thing, allowing the rebel mission to survive, and then they died. The film wanted to have the feeling that anything could happen, no one is safe, but that feeling would have been stronger if the characters occasionally perished in tense moments, making you wonder who’s really safe. Look, The Walking Dead has a similar problem. TWD tells you, “we’re a zombie show so no one’s safe,” except that a lot of the main characters are safe. They then choose one of those main characters and slaughter them as if to say “SEE? They weren’t safe!” But those moments are still built up to so that they feel like a story beat, just another step along the way. If you go the opposite route you have something like Saving Private Ryan, which really does a great job of creating an atmosphere in which everyone (save for maybe Tom Hanks) feels like they could be one wrong step away from the grave. If Rogue One really wanted that sense of drama, they should have killed off a side character early on. Yeah they killed off Forest Whitaker, but his death was grand and explosive and given time to happen. We saw it coming. For a moment you might have thought that Whitaker would get away, but he doesn’t. I think this moment is meant to tell you that people can and will die, but all the character deaths (except for that of Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook) are grand, like the story wants to give each character their moment. I think Bodhi’s death, which happens quickly due to a sort of grenade, should have taken place much earlier. It would create the necessary drama, and it would be shocking. I think the shock is important, even more so than the feeling of dread many of these deaths ultimately create.
I’m really struggling to say this the way I want to. Let’s try again. So this whole battle works out positively for the rebels. They get what they want, and we generally know it will work out. So when each character dies, it’s presented with dramatic music and care, making sure we know they died in service of something greater than themselves. But in the moment those characters died not knowing if the rebels would win the battle. For all they knew, the battle would be lost. So for that reason, I think their deaths should have been shocking. This might be too dark for a Star Wars film, but I believe it would have made the film better narratively. There are serval moments where a character is up against a wall, only for another character to swing it, shoot the bad guy and save the day. Two of those cliche moments are fine, but then the third moment, after we’ve been conditioned to anticipate the hero’s rescue, should end with the character at gunpoint actually getting shot. It shouldn’t be grand or cinematic in anyway. It should just happen. That would raise the stakes.
But this is a Star Wars film, so we get moments like that with last minute rescue, and we get moments like Andor getting shot, only to some back and save Jyn because he wasn’t dead after all!
At the same time, this film didn’t have to kill all its main characters. Whether because of studio intervention or just a sense of protection over the Star Wars franchise, this story could’ve given the protagonists a way out and tried to justify their lack of appearance in the future stories. But it didn’t, it went down the middle, in a way. The script killed the characters, but it did it in a fashion to paint these characters as each uniquely heroic. It Star Wars’d up their deaths, much like Obi Wan or Han Solo in the most recent Star Wars film. So basically, each of these character deaths was meant to feel like we were losing a character we loved dearly. Except that’s where the first half of the film comes in, and I hated the first half, as I’ve already said. I didn’t care about these characters, so their deaths weren’t effective in my opinion. Maybe it’s because I didn’t care for the characters that I wanted their deaths to be shocking. Like Saving Private Ryan, a shocking death doesn’t require that you connect emotionally with the character who dies. It’s really all in the execution.
The last thing I’ll say is that the end of this film, with the stolen Death Star plans handed to Princess Leia, felt a lot more profound after Carrie Fisher’s recent passing. I think, had she still been alive, it might have felt a little cheesy or cheap in some way (though maybe that’s not the case). But with her death, the culmination of this film felt like a tribute both to her and to the original magic of Star Wars. It felt optimistic and full of vigor. Not many movies in this Hollywood action movie genre feel that way when they end. Most often they feel quiet as these types of scripts try to gently rock you to sleep with resolution. They say “this character ended up here, this one went there, these two got together,” before the film delicately fades to black. But Rogue One cuts to black, ending with a bang. I will say that part of the reason I think the ending with CGI Leia might have felt cheesy originally is because of the juxtaposition of the prequel as a much more modern-looking film with the sequel which looks much older, because it is. The first three prequels had this problem too because they were made twenty years after the first three films. Despite taking place years before Episodes 4-6, the prequels feature spaceships and robots that look much more sleek and futuristic whereas Episodes 4-6 looked old and very much a product of the 70s. While the prequels didn’t feel as lived in as 4-6, the art design is very clearly newer-looking. It’s more colorful at least.
I think The Force Awakens did a good job of making the world feel real, lived in and looking like it takes place in an environment that feels like a continuation of 4-6. The main example is Rey’s hair, an interesting design that isn’t really a style common in the real world. Like Leia’s bun and Padme’s hair from the prequels, Rey’s hair felt like a style from that world.
I’m saying this to point out that Jyn’s hair feels very much like a hairstyle that is popular now and in the real world. It doesn’t seem to fit in the Star Wars world. Instead it looks like her outfit just looks cool for our current collective style. That would be fine on its own, but when you immediately go from her to Leia, it really feels like they occupy completely different time periods and different worlds.
Watching every Star Wars film in chronological order of the story would feel very odd. Those films, by year of release would be: 1999, 2002, 2005, 2016, 1977, 1980, 1983, 2016…
A lot of people will watch the films this way in the future, I probably will too at some point (though many might exclude Episodes 1-3).
I don’t know really what I’m trying to say about all of this other than it requires a suspension of belief, but a space opera with light sabers, aliens and Anakin Skywalker already requires a huge suspension of belief. I like that these films almost all feel optimistic and full of life, even if it can get a little bogged down in cliche, an excessive amount of family scenes (for example why does Jyn’s father have to be involved in the story, can’t she stand on her own as her own character?) and oftentimes a lack of consequence customary to any movie franchise. These films mean a lot to a lot of people, and that counts for something.
*I have no idea what I said in those 2,600+ words; I just rambled on. Maybe I can come back later with a more coherent review, but I probably won’t.