Director Gareth Edwards delivers a film light on story but excellent when it comes to visuals and set piece moments.
WARNING: Minor story spoilers in this review.
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4.6 billion, there was concern for the future of the lauded Star Wars franchise. There isn’t a director/actor/writer in Hollywood who wouldn’t jump at the chance to add themselves to the annals of the hallowed franchise’s universe. Episode VII: The Force Awakens presented a soft-reboot of the numbered films that would continue their own story while other Star Wars films would see releases during the off-years. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards of Godzilla (2014) and Monsters (2010) fame, is the first of the non-numbered Star Wars films and fills in the gaps between Episode III and Episode IV. Unfortunately, it dazzles the eye but lacks substance.
The crux of Rogue One is the story of how the rebel alliance acquired the Death Star plans for Episode IV. The film begins with Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and Death Star scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) setting the stage for unleashing the super weapon on the unsuspecting galaxy. Once the rebellion gets word of this war machine from Rebel Captain, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Galen’s estranged daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones) is recruited into the fight against the Empire. Along the way, Jyn and Cassian meet entertaining characters of different races and backgrounds. Noticeable standouts are an Asian mystic named Chirrut (Donny Yen) who shows surprisingly good humor about his lack of sight and is devoted to the Force despite not being a Jedi, and K-2SO, who provides much of the levity in Rogue One -- his dry humor and delivery (voiced by Alan Tudyk) is always on point.
Rogue One has four writers: Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, Antz and Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy and Bourne Trilogy) with story provided by John Knoll and Gary Whitta. The script has problems -- it’s evident there are too many cooks because none of the characters are fleshed out significantly, with Jyn the primary victim.
Jyn Erso is the most passive protagonist ever in a Star Wars movie, even more than Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy. Jyn gets dragged along by Cassian and is ambivalent to the plight of the rebellion but suddenly shifts her entire belief system in an instant during the third act. This shift suits the script and the film suffers because of it. With no three-dimensional central protagonist, instead opting for six, Rogue One is its own worst enemy. Jyn needed more dedicated screen time to flesh out and explain who her character really is prior to the inciting incident.
The Empire, when compared to The First Order from The Force Awakens, is toned down from the striking Nazi speeches and imagery. Instead, The Empire’s presence in Rogue One is more about authority and control than behaving like war criminals. There’s an interesting parallel, in certain scenes, to the American military effort in the Middle East – whether intentional or not – when the Empire convoy patrols the streets of a shanty town and is attacked by rebel terrorists. The Death Star acts as a Nuclear Bomb of sorts as it obliterates anything its laser touches in a blinding flash of light. The Death Star’s spectacle and destruction produces every bit as much terror as it did in the 1977 original.
Inducing terror is something that Rogue One does well, but often accidentally when it comes to their actors. Rather than find an actor to replace Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin – who doesn’t even get a credit – Edward’s decided to superimpose Cushing’s face onto another actor, all for the sake of interconnectivity between Rogue One and Episode IV. While the technology used to bring an actor back from the dead is impressive, it hasn’t quite yet reached the apex of believability. Cushing, along with another actor who shows up towards the end of the film (who will go unnamed in this review) dive head first into the uncanny valley and they’re never able to pull themselves out. James Earl Jones tries his hardest to convince you that he’s not 85, but you can hear the age in his delivery. Still, his Darth Vader scenes, though rare, each deliver that wonderfully imposing, dreaded and silent presence that has been associated with the character since 1977.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Rogue One. The cinematography and visual effects are what you’ve come to expect from Star Wars and Disney. The previously mentioned Death Star destruction scenes are littered with incredible detail. Director of photography Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty) composes the shots brilliantly, holding them just long enough to let the audience soak in all the fear. It’s truly a remarkable sight. Throughout the film, you’ll see new and inventive shots not previously seen in a Star Wars film. Rogue One also has some elaborate practical effects and stages, which greatly benefit the film.
I would be remiss not mentioning that John Williams’ absence – replaced by Michael Giacchino (Star Trek) – is felt throughout the entire film. John Williams hits many emotional notes in his Star Wars film scores, from the small to the grandiose, and The Force Awakens was a better film because of it. There’s an aura of mysticism and magic in Williams’ score and Giacchino’s work here, while serviceable, doesn’t match that level.
I care about Star Wars and my critique is a bit harsh. I’ve seen a wealth of stories that fill in the gap between Episode III and Episode IV done more efficiently and effectively, with excellent layers of character development, such as Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Disney’s own series, Star Wars: Rebels. Gareth Edwards delivers exactly as expected: light on story but excellent when it comes to visuals and set piece moments. But ultimately, Rogue One puts us in a holding pattern for the rest of the series and is only able to deliver a filler piece as we wait for the imminent Episode VIII.