In a generation where previously “nerdy” literature and stories have become mainstream, works of military science fiction must necessarily struggle to differentiate themselves from their peers: after all, if you’ve seen one space marine, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
In light of that high bar—a bar set by how far geek culture has evolved since the 1970s—“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is something of a disappointment.
Set just before the events of “Star Wars: A New Hope” (the first movie of the saga), “Rogue One” follows a small band of rebels’ attempt to capture the plans to the planet-demolishing Death Star. Our star is hard-charging Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of a kidnapped Imperial weapons designer (Mads Mikkelsen). Alongside a ragtag band of fellow rebels (Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Wen Jiang, a Sheldon Cooper-esque droid voiced by Alan Tudyk, and a few others) Jyn embarks on a series of risky missions designed to give the Rebellion a fighting chance against the Galactic Empire.
“Rogue One” is helmed by Gareth Edwards (the talented director behind the latest “Godzilla” iteration), and few of its deficiencies are due to Edwards’ direction. In fact, Edwards’ direction is one of the best things about this movie.
‘Rogue One’ Delivers A Powerful Aesthetic Experience
This is far-and-away the most beautiful “Star Wars” film ever made. Edwards brings a distinctive aesthetic vision to all of his projects (including the indie sci-fi drama “Monsters”) and “Rogue One” is no exception: the film opens on a grassy prairie planet under stormy skies, and ends on a tropical paradise planet filled with glassy blue waters and white sand beaches. Virtually every shot is beautifully composited, in ways that make J.J. Abrams’ direction feel positively workmanlike.
Moreover, the battle sequences are probably the best this series has ever seen—gritty, dust-blasted affairs filled with kinetic intensity. From urban warfare to beachfront combat, Edwards delivers drawn-out, high-drama confrontations that actually feel like battles, not brief skirmishes. This extends into the realm of space: while “The Force Awakens” lacked any real interstellar dogfights (preferring instead to concentrate on low-orbit battles), “Rogue One” more than makes up for it, building to a thunderous conclusion that rivals “Return of the Jedi” for sheer bombast.
But while “Rogue One” is a great achievement on the visual and technical fronts, screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy fail to deliver a suitably rich underlying narrative.
Jyn Is A Disappointing Lead, Compared To Her Predecessors
For starters, our heroine doesn’t measure up to her forebear. Much has been written about the avowed feminism of this new era of “Star Wars” films, but unfortunately, though Jones gives it her all, Jyn’s character is a real step back for female “Star Wars” protagonists.
Last year’s “The Force Awakens” centered on a female protagonist who was talented and competent in her own right—living alone under desperate conditions, working hard, and developing a mastery of technical skills (to the point that Han Solo offers her a job). And, of course, she’s a Jedi-in-training.
Conversely, in “Rogue One,” Jyn’s character is almost totally defined by her relationship with her lost father. She doesn’t seem to have a clear moral compass, any interests beyond her lost father, or any life purpose beyond moving from Plot Point A to Plot Point B. In infusing Jyn’s character with angst, but no substantive personality traits, Weitz and Gilroy end up regressing in the “strong female characters” department: Jyn is defined more by her relationships with men than by her individual identity.
But on a deeper level, “Rogue One” forgets exactly what themes are so unique to, and so compelling in, the “Star Wars” series.
‘Rogue One’ Ignores Forbears’ Transcendent Themes
Some might disagree, but for me the heart of “Star Wars” has always been the drama of good and evil and the Force–an intensely spiritual struggle set against the backdrop of galactic conflict. These ideas—theologically dubious though they may be—elevate the viewer to contemplate a world of transcendence and power beyond the immediate, a world of enchantment and romanticism where the fate of the galaxy is decided by blades of red and blue light. There is a reason more kids play with toy lightsabers than toy blaster rifles.
An early sequence takes Jyn and company to the planet Jedha, where ramshackle cities are built amid the ruins of ancient Jedi structures. An Imperial character later refers to “the holy city of Jedha,” but this feels strange in context. Nothing about Jedha’s portrayal onscreen suggests that a dimension of “holiness”—or even a subjective belief in “holiness” by some—is present. There are no pilgrims thronging the streets in a desperate attempt to find healing, no priestly figures prophesying judgment, and no gilded reliquaries. Similarly, the closest thing to a Jedi onscreen, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), never develops beyond “staff-toting blind monk who recites a mantra about the Force.”
In treating the Force elements so superficially, Weitz and Gilroy demonstrate (like much of today’s media) a failure to understand why people take religion—and, more broadly, a belief in the transcendent—seriously. An undercurrent of spirituality alongside sci-fi is the great distinctive of the “Star Wars” franchise, and “Rogue One” didn’t need to include Jedi or lightsaber duels to maintain this.
(At the risk of piling on, it also bears mention that “Rogue One” is annoyingly reluctant to employ John Williams’ immortal musical cues, instead substituting a bland, motif-less score that will be quickly forgotten. A little more of the Imperial March would’ve gone a long way.)
‘Rogue One’ Is Entertaining, But Not A Classic
“Rogue One” does throw in one fascinating technological twist that shouldn’t go unmentioned: the digital reincarnation of long-deceased Peter Cushing as Imperial general Grand Moff Tarkin. It’s mostly seamless (and indeed, quite impressive), but I can’t help but wonder what this means for movies to come. Will we get a digital Charlton Heston cast against Tom Cruise in a future superhero drama? The implications are potentially dramatic—and a million think pieces will undoubtedly be written about them—but will remain largely unknown for at least a year or so.
Purely on its own merits, “Rogue One” isn’t a terrible movie by any means. It’s definitely entertaining and makes for a fine popcorn flick—but if it were shorn of its “Star Wars” trappings, “Rogue One” wouldn’t be destined for cinematic immortality. It simply doesn’t feel like “Star Wars,” and thematically speaking, it suffers in comparison to its immensely satisfying predecessor.
There was only one moment in this film that sent chills down my spine: when Darth Vader ignites his lightsaber in a shadowy corridor, bathing his surroundings in red light. Moments like that fired the imaginations of generations of young people—and, sadly, “Rogue One” has them in short supply.