by Patrick Bromley
Rogue One, the newest movie in Disney's current Star Wars model that will put out at least one film a year, alternating between "episodes" in the larger continuity and self-contained "side" stories, is in many ways a big experiment. It eschews the opening title crawl and John Williams' score, maybe the most iconic of all movie music. It is darker and grittier than any Star Wars movie that precedes it, focusing heavily on the "wars" part of the title. It is, to its great credit, the most diverse movie in the series; there is only one white face in the ensemble of heroes, and it belongs to a woman. It breaks from the tradition of the franchise in a number of ways, which is why it's too bad that it isn't willing to break even more. Rogue One makes A New Hope a better, richer movie but sacrifices itself in the process.
For those who have not yet seen the movie, I won't indulge in spoilers or really even divulge many of the plot details. Suffice it to say that the film takes place in the weeks prior to A New Hope, when the rebel alliance plans a secret mission to steal the plans for a new weapon the Empire is preparing called the Death Star. I think we all know how that works out.
I'll admit to having my doubts in director Gareth Edwards. He made an interesting debut with Monsters, prompting me to wishing to see what he could do with a real budget at his disposal. Then he got a real budget to make Godzilla and I realized some wishes shouldn't be granted. I don't think Edwards is what's wrong with Rogue One, though; he does a good job with shooting and balancing the action, and that's the stuff in the movie that works best. I can't say as I agree with his decision to once again drain the fun out of an iconic science fiction property, but that's just a question of taste. I like the cast and I'm all on board for the idea of a "men on a mission" ensemble entry in the series. And yes, this is that, but not in a way that I found particularly satisfying. Most of these actors don't have real characters to play -- they have costume designs and designations, but not characters. Donnie Yen, the biggest standout in the group whose first fight scene against a group of Stormtroopers is the action highlight of the movie, is blind. And spiritual. And that's it. He's actually better defined than some of the other characters, like Wen Jiang, whose defining trait is that he's Donnie Yen's friend, or Riz Ahmed, who is a pilot. Ben Mendelsohn is an incredible actor, but his Orson Krennic might be the worst villain the series has ever seen, again not because he's actively bad but because there's just hardly anything there (and what there is offers only echoes of previous better bad guys). Even the central character, Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso, feels mostly like a cipher -- another in a long tradition of Star Wars characters who defines herself in relation to who her parents are. She's tough and she's capable, but also a bit of a blank. It's hard to come off The Force Awakens, with its likable, realized characters that were the best thing about the movie, and accept the "types" that Rogue One offers.
Here we get the biggest and longest action sequence in Star Wars history, one that takes place partly on the ground and partly in the sky (so it's a lot like the climactic sequence of Return of the Jedi, but don't mention that to the most die hard fans because you might as well be comparing to the prequels...which, this being a prequel, is also a little bit like). While our knowledge of the franchise means we all know how this battle will turn out, it is to Rogue One's credit that the sequence manages to still be engaging and exciting. It's also this stuff that makes those few lines of dialogue about the price paid to steal those plans in Star Wars carry much more weight, as this is the movie in which we really get to see the cost of the sacrifice made by so many. Does that work as a standalone movie? I'm not so sure, since we need to be familiar with Star Wars and how all of this pays off for the film to have the proper emotional impact. It ends on what is structured as a cliffhanger but really exists just to tee up Episode IV with more fan service, including another instance of some CGI on which Gareth Edwards leans heavily despite the fact that the technology is not there yet. While it is more successful in its goals than the entries that tell us about the Clone Wars or that time Anakin Skywalker met Obi Wan Kenobi, Rouge One still exists ultimately to fill in backstory rather than expand the world of Star Wars.
I'm happy to see director Edwards continuing with the more grounded aesthetic that JJ Abrams brought back with The Force Awakens; like the original George Lucas trilogy, this entry takes place in a "lived-in" universe. I like how many practical props and locations he uses, and with the exception of a couple egregious choices -- you know the ones -- even the CG is terrific. K2SO, a new android voiced by Alan Tudyk, is an impressive creation and one of the film's best characters, always looking like he's really in the scene even when we know he isn't. I like the way Edwards frames the film, too. It isn't just that he does away with the wipes; there is less epic fantasy scope and more of a real-world immediacy to the shot construction, less informed by classical westerns than it is by contemporary combat movies. For me, the movie is just missing a kind of life -- characters or moments that pop or a spirit to the whole endeavor. Some kind of...force.