This paragraph serves as a warning. There is no way to adequately review “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” without revealing some spoilers. My hope is to keep them minor – I don’t plan on telling you any twists or turns or if someone dies or lives. But there will be references to things that you wouldn’t have known without watching the movie. So, please, be forewarned that if you go any further you will see spoilers.
First and foremost, I am a bit of a Star Wars nerd. I have read the comics, watched the movies ad nauseum – even the prequels, the made-for-TV Ewok specials, and the Holiday Special – and read many of the books in the Extended Universe. This includes Catalyst, the book that serves as a prequel to “Rogue One” which, by itself, is a prequel to the original trilogy.
So, to be clear, this review does not come from someone who hates Star Wars. Contrary, it comes from someone who loves Star Wars – including its flaws. Because let’s be realistic here, Star Wars has a lot of flaws when it comes to storytelling. Plot holes abound in all the movies. Wooden characters populate the universe spouting dialog that reads more like a pulp fiction detective comic than a serious sci-fi film. But, beyond all that, it is fun. And if there is one great rule to storytelling it is that you can get away with a lot of flaws if you can convince your audience to suspend their disbelief. That was one of the things that made the original trilogy what it was – suspension of disbelief was so easy, so childlike, that even adults melted into this fantastical universe of ancient magic and futuristic spaceships.
All that being said, “Rogue One” did not capture me the way some of the other films did. I’m sorry if I offend someone by saying that. The movie had flaws – most of which the other Star Wars films suffer from to some degree – but somehow these flaws were not overshadowed by that ephemeral element that is suspension of disbelief. I still enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong, and there were moments of genuine joy and awe. But, overall, I feel like I did not see the same film many fans are gushing about.
Before we begin I spent some time thinking about where “Rogue One” fits in my ranking of Star Wars films. So here is my entirely un-scientific, because I feel like it, ranking of the Star Wars feature films:
- “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”
- This one is a no-brainer for me. Without ANH, we don’t have Star Wars. Before it was re-released it was literally just “Star Wars.” It is the source of everything else. For that reason alone it should make number 1. But beyond that, there is a magic to ANH that is undefinable but captivating. You can still watch it today, in spite of some of the cringe-worthy dialog and unsophisticated acting, and enjoy it from start to finish as a standalone film.
- “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”
- Often everyone’s favorite, Empire comes in second only because ANH needs to be first, in my opinion. Empire featured the best writing of the films as well as the most character development, in my opinion, of the entire franchise. Without Empire as we know it the characters would have been as generic as any trope could possibly be. ANH gave them life, Empire gave them a soul.
- “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”
- Often criticized for being a near shot-for-shot remake of ANH, TFA succeeds where ANH failed, in my opinion. Rey is supremely relatable and believable. Abrams hit on everything that made Star Wars entertaining and memorable and added a spark of life that was often missing. A great film and one I have watched over and over and still enjoy.
- “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
- “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi”
- “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”
- This is often listed as the favorite of the prequels, if anything can be said about them being favorites, and I tend to agree. In spite of the dime-store dialog, it captured the attention of the audience and managed to, generally, keep you in the movie instead of groaning in your seat.
- “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones”
- “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”
- These last two I feel no need to explain. TPM gets bottom billing because of the length, because of poor Jake Lloyd getting stuck with Lucas’ unchecked ambitions, and because of Jar-Jar.
So there you go. “Rogue One” is fourth in my list, behind TFA and ahead of ROTJ. And now I will explain why.
First of all, what “Rogue One” gets right, in a nutshell: Darth Vader. Lord above it was glorious to see that Sith do what he does best. His mannerisms were a perfect mesh of Hayden Christensen’s
impulsive anger and vicious tongue, and David Prowse’s deliberate, haunting, evil. If Vader has any failings in this film it is not from him, but from Director Gareth Edwards and his penchant for keeping the monster out of the movie as much as possible. It is a trick that served him well with “Monsters” and “Godzilla” (both films I rave about whenever someone makes the foolish mistake of bringing them up around me), but a trick I think that may have failed him here with “Rogue One.”
Part of the reason for keeping the monster in reserve is the shock factor. You don’t want the film to be something akin to a Transformers movie where everyone is introduced at the start and you follow with two hours of disjointed fighting that looks more like someone shaking an Etch-A-Sketch drawing of robots than a movie. But when it comes to Darth Vader, we know who he is. We know what he is. We want to see him. He doesn’t need to be in the whole movie – but surely he deserves more screen time than a few lines and a short, but spectacular, exhibition of a Sith Lord in full flower.
Speaking of power and getting things right, the Guardian of the Whills, Chirrut Imwe (played by Donnie Yen), was a great addition to the cinematic world of Star Wars. The Guardians have long been a favorite of mine. These are monks whose sole purpose is to study and protect the Force and the Journal of the Whills, the text of which includes the prophecy about bringing balance to the Force. They are so badass that Jedi Masters and Sith Lords alike seek them out to learn more. Qui-Gon Jinn supposedly learned how to survive death from the Guardians of the Whills.
So when Chirrut demonstrates his power, his control of the Force, it was a glorious moment of pure joy for me.
Finally, a Star Wars film cannot succeed without amazing visual and sound effects. “Rogue One” has both in plenty. You get the usual vignette of worlds from a Star Wars film. Each, as is tradition, seemingly overwhelmed by a single weather pattern. You get lightsabers, blasters, and space battles galore. And the Death Star – well, it only grew more menacing in this film, if such a thing can be said.
I haven’t made a call on the CGI Grand Moff Tarkin yet. I know a lot of people feel the character was in the uncanny valley but, honestly, I cannot tell if that is due to the CGI or to the fact that Peter Cushing always looked like an animated corpse in that role. Time will tell, I guess.
But now we are getting to the issues I have with the movie. If you noticed, almost everything I like about it references the first trilogy. And there’s a reason for that. Without copius references to Episodes IV, V, and VI, “Rogue One” fails as a standalone film, in my opinion. The new characters are so two-dimensional that when I left the theatre, the only ones I knew by name had the last name of “Erso”. And that was only because Felicity Jones’ character, the protagonist Jyn Erso, had her name shouted by nearly every other character in the movie at least once. She herself even shouts her name out in a cliched villain encounter. I certainly did not remember her because of Jones’ performance. It was lackluster, although I cannot say that was her fault, as all of the characters seemed to have dialog that would make Lucas proud – and everyone else facepalm. In the theatre there were multiple times the audience chuckled at a line – not because it was intended to be funny, but because it was just bad.
No, if I didn’t know the actor by name, or they didn’t come from the other movies, they left no real impression on me. Even Chirrut Imwe I had to look up after the movie to remember his name. Otherwise he was just “that blind monk.”
Furthermore, the plot itself seemed disjointed. It wasn’t that it didn’t have direction – it did, the goal was to get everyone to the final battle – it was that each scene served only that purpose. With a few needless flashbacks to establish Jyn’s motivation – an attempt that failed because Jyn herself, or at least Jones, didn’t seem to have any real attachment to that motivation. The movie told us she wanted to save her father and stop the Death Star, but it did not show us that she wanted to.
Contrast that to TFA: Rey wasn’t just motivated by what happened to her; every action she did, almost every word she spoke, reflected a drive and determination in the character that simply did not exist in Jyn. To some degree, the same thing applies to Luke: Luke’s motivations were clear even without flashback scenes. We didn’t need to establish why Luke wanted to do what he wanted to do. It was clear as day by his actions and what we saw happen to him. The movies didn’t need to tell us Luke or Rey’s reasons: it showed us those reasons.
The same problem persists with the rest of the characters. Why did they do what they do? Because they were rebels or imperials. That’s it. That was their sole motivation. They could have been faceless droids and had the same impact on the movie overall. Hell, one of them was a faceless droid, but he had Wash – er, I mean Alan Tudyk performing as Wash into a vocal processor – as his voice, so at least he generated a few chuckles.
After I left the theatre, feeling happy to have watched a Star Wars film but somehow as if something was missing, I realized what it was. If you remove the references to the original trilogy this film would be a very lackluster space opera. A one-off at best. “Jupiter Ascending” with more explosions. Mind you, I enjoyed “Jupiter Ascending” as well, but not as much as I wanted to.
And I think that is the crux of the matter: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is enjoyable. But not as enjoyable as I wanted it to be. If it had released prior to “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”, I think I would have enjoyed it more. But TFA set a standard that Edwards and his crew was not up to the challenge to meet, let alone exceed.
If I was to use an “out of ten” rating system, it would go something like this:
- Audio and Visual Effects: 10/10 – spectacular.
- Soundtrack: 8/10 – standard for Star Wars, it works.
- Acting: 7/10 – I think the actors did the best with what they were given. Mads Mikkelsen could do a spoken word rendition of “Dick In A Box” and it would come off as a plaintive love sonnet.
- Writing: 6/10 – the story just wasn’t there. It was disjointed and failed to give the new characters any real gravitas to reinforce the weight we were told they were supposed to have.
- Direction: 7/10 – Gareth Edwards knows how to make a beautiful movie. But he seems to have issues with pacing and telling a seamless story. It was one of the problems with “Godzilla”, and it is showing itself here as well.
- Overall: 7.5/10. It was a good movie, not great, not the best, and not one I have a burning desire to watch over and over like other Star Wars films. Far better than the prequels, better than ROTJ.
I’m sure many of you disagree with me. I know some of you do. I’m not saying don’t see it – I’m just saying I don’t believe it lives up to the hype that some superfans are giving it. Enjoy it for what it is and you will be happy. Think too long about it, though, and you will start to see cracks in the make-up.
All that being said, I look forward to more offerings from Disney. May the Force be with us all.