WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
This past weekend, I engaged in what is likely to be an annual ritual for as long as Disney decides they want to keep printing money with their movie franchise set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Rogue One held great promise and potential, telling a story that fleshes out key details of the Star Wars saga that any fan would want to see. I don’t see many movies in the theater, but this was one that I was eagerly anticipating. As I sat in the theater watching the end credits roll, and for a long time after I walked out, I mulled over my reaction to the film.
One of the most striking things for me is that I didn’t really feel connected to any of the characters. Even if the motivation stems purely from crass commercial reasons, I like the fact that we’re seeing greater diversity in Star Wars movies. However, there wasn’t enough dimension to any of the characters for me to really be able to care that deeply. Ironically, I found myself enjoying K-2SO more than any of the human characters; it’s hard not to like the character who gets the best lines and provides comic relief in an otherwise grim story, especially when he’s voiced by Alan Tudyk.
One might argue that were just too many characters to allow any of them to develop (which would not actually be an argument that justifies the lack of characterization, but rather just another reason for why it exists). A simple rebuttal would go something like this: Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2, Darth Vader. That’s a whopping eight characters who in their first outing, a film with approximately the same running time as Rogue One, all managed to achieve their own unique characterization and make us care about them (or fear them, as the case may be).
Allowing for a moment, for sake of argument, that there were simply too many characters in Rogue One, why squander precious screen time with ancillary characters whose role is completely unessential and could’ve been absorbed by a different character? Some quick research shows me that Saw Gerrera originated in the Clone Wars TV series. I have nothing against stories and intellectual property crossing over into different media, with different parts of the story being told. This can actually create a richer experience for people who make the effort to keep up with all of the material that’s created and allow for stories that wouldn’t work well in one format to be told in another (for example there’s a comic book that describes what happened to Vader immediately after the Battle of Yavin 4 when he went spinning off into the cosmos in his TIE fighter).
However, the story told in each format must be able to stand on its own and not require familiarity with the entire body of work across all forms of media to be comprehensible. Fans of the show will probably enjoy seeing Saw Gerrera on the big screen, but for audience members who are unfamiliar with The Clone Wars, the presence of this character doesn’t make much sense.
There’s been a fair deal of buzz about Vader’s presence in this film. Fans and filmmakers will naturally relish the opportunity for the ultimate Star Wars Big Bad to get more screen time; however, this is an endeavor fraught with peril as there is significant risk in damaging him as an icon, and a comparatively smaller chance of enhancing his status.
In his first scene (one that manages to simultaneously waste Vader and hammer home just how weak the main villain in this movie is), he tosses off a lame joke about choking on ambition while subjecting Krennic to his favorite force power. Perhaps it was intended as a riff on the “Apology accepted, commander” line from Empire, but this line seemed so cheesy and jarringly out of place with Vader’s character that it feels like something out of bad fan-fic than a bona-fide Star Wars movie. On the other, we have the climactic scene where Vader ruthlessly and effortlessly takes down an entire squad of rebel troops — something we had no doubt he was capable of, but something we had never actually seen him do before on the big screen. This portrayal of Vader as a relentless, implacable force doesn’t undo the pointlessness of his previous scene, but it does enhance Vader’s status as an iconic cinematic villain.
The misuse of characters was not limited to story elements. The casting for Mon Mothma was spot-on. Perhaps finding an actor who could convincingly take over for Peter Cushing in both appearance and acting ability chops proved to be too big of a challenge and justified the use of CGI to re-create Grand Moff Tarkin for this movie. But why bother showing Leia’s face? To anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the original movie, avoiding showing her face would have been a classier and more artistic move. For the imaginary person who watches Rogue One and has no idea who she is, the significance of her inclusion in that final scene will be lost, and they will be left wondering why the filmmakers used a CGI actress (CGI has come an incredible way, but we’re not out of the uncanny valley just yet). Homages work best when they stay true to one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking: suggest, don’t show. Bail Organa making a reference to a friend who “served [him] well during the Clone Wars” who the audience realizes is Obi-Wan? Good. Princess Leia CGI? Not so good.
Everything I’ve said up to this point has dealt with the technical merits of Rogue One. But I want to turn to topics of much greater importance. A trend that started with The Force Awakens and which continues in this film is that the tone of the new movies has shifted darker. The true essence of Star Wars movies is one of daring adventure and heroism, good guys vs. bad guys. It tends to be simplistic in its morality, but that’s not always a negative trait in stories, and it has its place. With The Force Awakens and Rogue One, it’s starting to feel like Star Wars is putting on its big-boy pants, but is what it’s becoming true to the spirit of what makes Star Wars Star Wars?
In A New Hope, the destruction of Alderaan is depicted with clinical detachment on the part of Tarkin, Vader, and the rest of the Imperials, and the audience sees an orbital-level view of the destruction that lasts for only a few seconds. An unspeakably horrific act, but portrayed in such a way that makes it tolerable for even young children to watch. In The Force Awakens, not only is the amount of destruction greater (five planets for the price of one!), but the depiction of what is taking place is much more disturbing, as this time, we the audience witness the look of horror and despair on the faces of the people on the planets as they realize what is taking place. It is essentially the same act taking place in both films, yet the lighter tone and literally zoomed-out perspective of the first film allows it to be used as a plot point to establish just how truly ruthless the empire is while glossing over the enormity of what has taken place, whereas the latter film’s conveying the horror on a personal scale creates a darker, grittier tone.
I enjoy darker, morally ambiguous, challenging stories and characters, but I also like simpler stories with more clear-cut morality as well. Star Wars isn’t the place for grimdark. Perhaps Star Wars is maturing with its audience; but a significant part of Star Wars’ staying power and appeal is the sense of nostalgia that it brings with it, and its relatively simple stories of good vs. evil — stories that adult fans who were fans as children want to share with their own children now, but will have a difficult time doing so with the latter films. It happens so early and quickly that it’s easy to forget, but did you pause for a moment at how Andor callously murders his informant at the start of the film?
For all of my criticism, I don’t think Rogue One is a bad film; it’s not a great one, but I might go as far as saying that it’s pretty good overall. It’s certainly better than the prequel trilogy, but that’s a low bar to clear. The heart of the matter is that I want every Star Wars movie to be great! The only reason I’ve written as much as I have is because that’s how much I care about Star Wars. I never go into any movie hoping that it’ll be bad; I love Star Wars — and for that matter, I love much of the Marvel cinematic universe, and much of geek culture in general. I want every new movie in these franchises to be the best one ever, to be better than the one that came before. Sadly, it’s rare that a truly outstanding movie is made (in any universe or genre).
As I wrote this essay, I could actually feel my recollection of the movie causing it to grow on me. I would like to see it again, if not in the theater, then definitely when it comes out on Blu-ray. I’ve read snippets about how the filmmakers wanted it to be a “different kind” of Star Wars movie. If that was indeed their intent, they certainly succeeded. In light of this, I suppose it’s rather appropriate that the movie is titled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, not Star Wars: Rogue One.
In the end, I have mixed feelings about this movie in and of itself. Two of my friends who I saw it with quipped that the final battle scene would’ve made a better Star Wars video game than a movie. I imagine that I’ll end up enjoying this film in a way that’s similar to the way I enjoy the prequel trilogy: not enjoying watching the movies themselves, unfortunately, but appreciating the contributions they make to the lore and the way this enhances the story as a whole. For example, although it’s a brand-new addition to the story, I already feel like the explanation for the critical weaknesses of the first Death Star is an indispensable part of the lore that always existed but which we didn’t know until now. The story of Galen Erso sabotaging its construction feels like a natural fit, a perfect explanation for what previously had been a plot hole. (Contrast this with the wholly unnecessary and and rage-inducing introduction of midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace.) At the risk of damning with faint praise, while I may see Rogue One as failing to achieve all that it could have as a film, saying that a prequel that feels like it was part of the story all along is one of the highest accolades I could give.