'Rogue One' Review

Photo Credit: LucasFilm

Rogue One is subtitled as A Star Wars Story, although the concept is to make it look and feel like none of the past Star Wars stories before it. To those who decried The Force Awakens as just a rip off of A New Hope at this time last year, that may come across as a great relief.

This transition and the concepts behind it are all very much admirable, and many of them work quite well in the execution. Nonetheless, it is hard not to feel that there is a little something lost along the way. Despite being far more experimental than The Force Awakens, perhaps director Gareth Edwards could have stood to have a touch of J.J. Abrams in him in other important aspects.

In the early days of the Empire, plans for the weapon soon to be known as the Death Star were being carried out by Imperial Director Krennic. Yet he needed reluctant scientist Galen Erso to make it a reality, and in taking him, he left Galen's little daughter Jyn with no family. But after 15 years of surviving under extremist Rebel Saw Gerrera and then scrapping by on her own, a grown Jyn is rescued from Imperial capture by a Rebel Alliance on the ropes. They need her connections to Saw to help verify that a defector Imperial pilot he captured has a message from Galen about an ultimate weapon, which is naturally exactly that and much more. As Jyn and Rebel Captain Cassian Andor wind up taking on more allies, and as Krennic prepares to make the Death Star live up to its full planet killing power, all remaining hope for the Rebellion eventually lies on the theft of a very important set of plans.

With no opening crawl, no Star Wars theme music and with Michael Giacchino composing in place of John Williams, the difference from the traditional Star Wars is established from minute one. There aren't even any wipes to transition between scenes, as Edwards just drops us into one planet after another early on. For that matter, they even have a main character "shooting first" in a way that certainly can't be altered by any Special Edition remakes, a la Han and Greedo, so they really are playing by different rules here.

As much as this conceptually works on paper, it comes at a bit of a cost. Edwards seems to be driven more by plot than character, or at least co-writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are, so they really don't leave themselves much time to settle down and get to know these people.

For all its originality issues, what The Force Awakens did best was to immediately make us care about Star Wars' new heroes, heroines and even villains, as it took the time to let them win us over amidst all the massive action and original trilogy parallels. However, Edwards, Weitz and Gilroy are content to just let the actors and actresses fill in the blanks on that front, as they keep moving them along with little room to stop and flesh them out.

But in truth, that works just fine for Rogue One for quite a while.

It starts with Felicity Jones front and center as Jyn, who is certainly more hard bitten and brittle than Rey was at this time last year. Jones makes that clear from the get go, effortlessly conveying Jyn's steel shell and the little periodic cracks in it with just a look, until it all shatters in one devastating scene near the end of act one. As Jyn grows into more of a leader and into someone who actually has hope, Jones lights the way even when the script doesn't always give her that much more to go on.

Diego Luna has even less to go on for a long period of time after his opening scene, as Cassian gets a bit lost in the shuffle in some stretches. Yet before it is too late, he gets back up with a few of the film's more poignant speeches, showing a new perspective inside the Rebellion of a soldier who's given up a bit too much in its service.

This best symbolizes Rogue One's strongest emotional hook, as a tale of soldiers of all kinds seeking redemption, and to reclaim who they are and what has already been lost. Even its main comic relief is a droid who once worked for the Empire, although his defection is perhaps due more to reprogrammed circuits than free will.

Nevertheless, it is mainly all about the one-liners for K-2SO, which Alan Tudyk is pitch perfect at delivering. The human characters who come closest to showing that much personality are Donnie Yen as blind yet highly attune Force worshipping Chirrut, and a somewhat bizarre Forest Whitaker as Saw.

On the side of the Empire, Ben Mendelsohn shows a lot of early promise as Krennic, bringing life to a few one-liners of his own and showing a villain starved for credit and attention above all else. He is also the first significant main Star Wars villain without any Force powers or connections since A New Hope's Governor Tarkin, who is conveniently resurrected by his side to needle him.

But for all this, there is ultimately little payoff given to Krennic, and little left for Mendelsohn to sink his teeth into by the end. As it stands, the villain everyone will be remembering best from Rogue One is a fellow who goes by the name of Darth Vader, even with only two scenes to speak of. Nevertheless, just as The Force Awakens scrubbed out the rotten memories of the prequel trilogy, Vader gets his own much needed prequel redemption and then some.

While Vader is taken seriously again, Rogue One has already garnered a reputation for taking war seriously for the first time in the whole Star Wars saga. Nitpicks have already been made about how war has been in the title for 40 years, but Edwards takes it more literally than any franchise director before him.

Although World War II is ultimately the main inspiration for Rogue One’s war material, it is hard not to think of more current times during a battle in the holy occupied land of Jedha, complete with tanks and extreme guerrilla tactics. Even so, Edwards still has room to be fanciful when Chirrut unleashes his skills on unsuspecting stormtroopers. He also closes this section of the film out in big fashion, between Jyn learning the truth about her father and the Death Star then displaying its power for the very first time.

Things then move to a rainy Imperial research base, culminating in the inevitable father-daughter reunion. But this comes to represent and foreshadow a bigger problem, as this moment should hit hard and almost does thanks to Jones and Mads Mikkelsen, but Edwards, Weitz and Gilroy cannot add the depth, heart and time needed to give it the deeper impact it really should have had. Unfortunately, this is only the first example of a nearly crippling trend.

Yet even after this, the emotional ship is righted by Cassian’s added depth in the moments afterwards, and the sight of a Rebel Alliance shaken to the point of considering surrender to the Death Star. As it turns out, Jyn’s team really is a “rogue” one to more than just the Empire, which brings them to the tropical planet of Scarif for an already celebrated third act.

Once again, this is a final act in Star Wars that hinges on destroying the shield of an impenetrable Imperial planet, on aerial battles and on the Death Star. But while those old Star Wars troupes get another workout, the battles on the ground of Scarif defy Star Wars tradition in more and more brutal ways.

This extended climax happens to sum up both the good and disappointing of Rogue One. For the good, it pays off its intent to examine and show war differently than ever before in Star Wars, and does so to such an extent that the beginning of A New Hope may never be seen in the same way again.

Yet the ways it is really supposed to hurt and hit hard entirely hinges on how much audiences have grown to care about these characters. On paper, it should be a no brainer, especially with what Jones, Tudyk, Yen, Luna, Riz Ahmed and Jiang Wen have done to that point. The problem is Edwards and his writers do far less to make us fully care about these Rebels and their fates than their performers do, and the dark side of that becomes too clear before the end.

There are moments in this grand finale that should really and truly bring pain and heartache to us, but Edwards and his team are too busy skimming over their characters to do them justice as they meet their destiny. On paper, their actions are a stirring tribute to a different and overlooked side of the Rebellion that made it possible for its greatest heroes to emerge. But in the executions, all but one or two of the payoffs, climaxes and reckonings are not given the real emotional depth and time that they had every right to have.

There is nothing compared to the absolute thrill from last year when Rey unlocked her true power, or to the pain of seeing Han Solo meet his fate, or to the way The Force Awakens left us all wanting more in its final moments. While Rogue One is built on the message of a new hope, what it is really missing is heart, or at least as much of the heart as the Star Wars of old.

The best and even the worst of Star Wars has triggered genuine emotional responses fueled by both extremes. That kind of go for broke attitude has resulted in real disaster when it hasn’t worked, but has gone down in cinematic and pop culture history when it has. However, that is what is missing most from Edwards in his efforts to change the Star Wars template, as some aspects needed less changing than others.

In a way, this makes Rogue One just as frustrating as the other prequels, despite being far better than them. But because so much does work on a conceptual level, an action level and an acting level, it makes it all the more puzzling why Edwards and his writers can’t quite take Rogue One as a whole to the next level.

This won’t be the view of every Star Wars fan or critic, and it is actually easy to see why. There is an easy case to be made that Rogue One really is the daring change of pace The Force Awakens wasn’t, at least in story, theme, tone and message.

But in this perspective, it is a movie easier to admire for its intent and concepts than it is to truly fall in love with and get swept away by. Perhaps that will change with the inevitable multiple viewings, yet after this first one, it feels more like a missed opportunity than it really should have been.

Rogue One is really the oddest Star Wars movie of the saga, and not because it is the only anthology/non-Skywalker movie so far. It doesn’t remotely have the catastrophic mistakes of the other prequels, or even the worst missteps of the original films or The Force Awakens. Yet in trying to blaze a new trail, if only for this one movie, it too often feels like there is something essential and heartfelt missing, showing that Edwards may have been the right choice in some key areas and the wrong one in others.

Maybe Episode VIII will do better in branching beyond the usual Star Wars boundaries with Rey, Luke, Finn, Kylo Ren, Poe, BB-8, Leia and company, assuming that’s what writer/director Rian Johnson has in mind. Rogue One took what didn’t work about The Force Awakens and made it better, yet forgot to live up to some of the things that did work, so the new hope is that Johnson has a better balance in Episode VIII’s Force.

Rogue One’s really forces its way into a 6.5 rating, even though it officially has to be marked down to a 6 on the TMN.com scale. It is a truly close call between a 6 or a 7, considering everything Jones and her team can do when they are allowed to, and considering just how much the movie is on the right track in many ways.

Yet this makes it even less of an excuse that Rogue One’s execution of these good ideas is less shattering and impactful in practice than it thinks it is. In that regard, this Star Wars story is left in an odd state of limbo, which is far from the worst but a little bit far from the best place past Star Wars stories have ended up in.