Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

The characters of Rogue One. I struggle to remember their Dingly-Dang sci-fi names.

Director: Gareth Edwards (Tony Gilroy)

Cast: Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso), Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), Ben Mendelsohn (Director Krennic), Donnie Yen (Chirrut Imwe), Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso), Alan Tudyk (K-2SO), Riz Ahmed (Bohdi Rook), Jiang Wen (Baze Malbus), Forest Whitaker (Saw Gerrera), Genevieve O’Reilly (Mon Mothma), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Guy Henry (Grand Moff Tarkin), Alistair Petrie (General Draven)

When Disney got hold of the complete rights for Star Wars, they were motivated by one thing above all: making a shitload of cash. In that goal, they’ve been very, very successful. Rogue One fills out (pads out) the story of how the Rebels got hold of the Death Star plans, something the original film (correctly?) reckoned could be covered in a few lines of dialogue. Anyway, for complex, muddily explained reasons, the rebels needs Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of chief designer on the Death Star Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), to rescue a pilot from a rogue general to get a message from her father. Or something. Anyway, things eventually lead to a major space battle as our heroes try to steal the plans from a giant computer database.

Rogue One is hugely popular. You’ll go a long way before you meet someone willing to say a bad word about it. It’s been hailed as a far superior dip into the franchise ocean than JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens. This is inexplicable to me. I genuinely can’t understand it. As far as I can tell, Rogue One is little more than a fair to middling action film, hugely reliant on ramming in as many references and easter eggs from previous films as it can, rather than actually doing anything new or unique with the franchise. 

For me it’s a sprawling, rather dull film with no depth or patience. The first hour is genuinely quite boring, with each over-designed location blending into the next. The whole film seems designed to require as little attention as possible: short scenes, planet to planet, each having little real impact on the next emotionally. The battles are designed and shot like things intended to be cut up into YouTube clips. No-one talks during the fights, we rarely learn anything about characters during the prolonged action – instead it’s a series of moments, straining at the leash to be cool, with personal sacrifices determined by plot requirements rather than by natural character growth. 

Watching parts of it you can enjoy the moments: a blind man taking out Stormtroopers, or Darth Vader cutting down rebels. But there is little to tie these moments together. Plot and characterisation are treated in the same chunked way – events grind to a halt so Mads Mikkelson can tell us what happens next, or Cassian can bluntly talk about how being a rebel is tough on the nerves. In the original Star Wars, plot, character and action were woven together so we learned about all three together. Here they are silos, with action the focus. It feels like a film made for YouTube, more interested in pop culture references with only the flimsiest story propping it up, designed to be spliced up online.

Darth Vader lets rip in a section that seems designed as a YouTube moment of the future

Now the lead character, Jyn Erso. I don’t understand this character. Who is she? What is it she actually wants? For the first hour or so of the film she makes no decisions at all, but does what a series of older male characters tell her to do. There is nothing in the film that allows us to get to know her. Her actions aren’t dictated by character, or even logic, she simply shuttles around the carousel of ever-changing planets whenever the plot needs her to, mouthing whatever sentiments the film needs in order to move on. The film needs her to be a disaffected criminal? She is. The film needs her to be a distraught daddy’s girl? There we go. The film needs her conversion into a rebel freedom fighter? Boom. What does she feel about this? What awakes her idealism, and converts her from criminal to self-sacrificing hero? Nobody knows, the film doesn’t care. It doesn’t help that Felicity Jones’ headgirlish primness is a total mismatch for a gritty, tough-as-nails fighter from the wrong-end-of-the-tracks.

There are many people in this film, but precious few characters. It’s quite damning that the person who makes the biggest impact isn’t a person at all but a robot – and K-2SO is basically a walking cynical punchline, a battle-ready C3PO. Diego Luna’s Cassian is so thinly sketched it’s hard to invest in him at all: the film has no interest in character development so we are bluntly told his characteristics in ham-fisted dialogue. He has a vague speech about how he’s Seen Bad Things, and that’s deemed sufficient to explain all his actions. The worst is Riz Ahmed’s pilot, whose motivations are so unaddressed he spits out some final words to supply his motivation just as he snuffs it. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are little more than a collection of cool sounding quirks – Blind One, and Blind One’s Friend. Can you even remember their names? 

On the plus side, Ben Mendelsohn is pretty good as an ambitious Imperial officer edging his way up the greasy pole – most of the more interesting dialogue scenes feature Death Star office politics. Mads Mikkelson mines every inch of humanity and compassion from his role. At the other end of the spectrum, an unrestrained Forest Whitaker lets rip as a plot mouthpiece, delivered in his most overripe manner. (There’s some kind of backstory to his relationship with Jyn, but the film never bothers to go into this, because that time is better spent with Whitaker spouting bland, faux-epic, lines like “Save the rebellion. Save the dream”, round mouthfuls of scenery.)

There has been a lot of discussion of the digital recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin – I’ve no real moral problem with it (lord knows, a glance at his CV tells you Cushing would probably have loved to have been in this film), and Guy Henry does a pretty good vocal recreation of Cushing. It looks a little odd the more you watch it – it’s probably going to date the film quite badly in ten years time – with more than a hint of the “uncanny valley” in Tarkin’s face. It makes sense, though, including the character in the film – and at least we get some characterisation and motivation.

Edward’s visual ability allows him to film his toy collection in a way that at least feels a bit fresh, but it’s a film made by a fanboy, more interested in getting as many references from the past in than creating something new. Edwards rams in everything from Blue Milk to AT-ATs. Now there is a certain pleasure in spotting this stuff, don’t get me wrong. But will it reward future viewing? The final space battle sequence might as well be a child filming smashing his toys together.

My point is, remove all the vast amount of Star Wars ephemera from this, and what do you have left? Once you’ve exhausted the pleasure of seeing that bloke Obi-Wan cuts the arm off in the bar in the first film, or you’re no longer excited by admiring the recreation of the Rebels’ base, what is there left in the film for you to enjoy? Imagine this was a stand-alone story – what would really make you come back? It’s so shrunken and dependent on Star Wars that it stops almost exactly 5 minutes before Star Wars starts – and, I would argue, means the start of that film makes much less sense.

That’s the final problem – for all the talk of Star Wars being a huge universe, this film only stresses how small it is, how reliant it is on events that have already happened or spinning its plotlines off from references in other films. No matter where we go, the same people keep popping up, the same beats keep getting hit. The film is daring, I suppose, in killing off nearly the entire cast over the course of the film – but these characters have been so poorly developed that their deaths lack any impact. It’s a film overwhelmingly fascinated by surface and fan-wanking over the old films, than showing anything new. 

Now I know you could level some of these charges against The Force Awakens – but that was a film with engaging characters and fresh, enjoyable dialogue that introduced a few new concepts for the films to go forward with. Within moments of their first appearances, you knew what kind of person Rey was (bold, determined, wistful, searching) or Finn (conscience-stricken, inventive, desperate) – hell the dinky robot had more character than the cardboard cutouts here. The internet obsession with shipping Finn & Po shows how much these characters came alive. Can you imagine anyone spinning out theories of backstory or subtext about any of the people here? No, because they’re not people, they’re plot devices. 

If a truly inventive director had got hold of this material, we could have ended up with something that felt really fresh. Instead we have something that is basically juvenile and dim: front row seats at a child’s game that jumps from set-piece to set-piece with no interest in weaving them together. Possibly only the 6th best Star Wars film.

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