Once Disney secured the deal to purchase Lucasfilm for a whopping $4 billion, it all but ensured that we’d be seeing a brand new Star Wars film at least every year until the day we die. The astounding box office receipts of The Force Awakens proved that there was a pent up demand for Star Wars movies that were serviceable, in that they were simply better than the underwhelming prequels. The first spinoff set a long time ago in that galaxy far, far away would be Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, helmed by Godzilla director Gareth Edwards. A somewhat sequel/prequel hybrid, Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebellion came into possession of the Death Star plans at the start of A New Hope. In many regards Rogue One is cut from the same cloth as The Force Awakens – it’s entertaining enough and certainly better than the prequels but leans so heavily on the nostalgia that has become the driving force of the revitalized Star Wars world.
And fear not, dear reader, you can safely traverse this review without fear of spoilers — though we do all know how this one ends, it’s simply a matter of how we get there.
There’s no opening scroll for Rogue One, dropping us right into the story as Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has abandoned his life working for the Empire opting to take up the life of a farmer with his wife Lyra (Valene Kane) and young daughter Jyn (played as a child by Beau Gadsdon). Galen’s past life working with the Empire comes back in the form of Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) who is close to reaching a breakthrough on a revolutionary project (can you guess what it is?) and needs the expertise of Galen to complete the project and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Jyn is able to escape the Stormtroopers searching for her and is rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
15 years later, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is en route to a forced labor facility as a prisoner of the Empire, though she’s successfully concealed her true identity under an alias. She’s unexpectedly rescued by the rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his trusty droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), an Empire droid reprogrammed with a unique personality. Jyn has been freed by the Rebellion because word has come forth from a former Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) that Galen and the Empire are close to completion of the Death Star. But in order to track down Galen, Cassian and Jyn must meet with Saw Gerrera, who raised Jyn and has since split with the Rebellion, along the way meeting Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). This ragtag group of misfits and rebels will have to orchestrate a plan to secure the Death Star plans and provide the Rebellion with a little bit of hope in a dark, trying time for all.
These issues really extend much further when it comes to the motivations of the characters within Rogue One. Jyn Erso is at first a reluctant hero that accepts fate’s call. Unfortunately, there’s really little beyond the character’s motivation beyond daddy issues – the simultaneous desire to be reunited with her father and prove that he’s not merely a reluctant worker in service of evil. Similar issues plague Cassian Andor, who has been with the Rebellion since the age of six and has been called upon to do morally questionable things in the battle against the Empire. Whether it’s Jyn, Cassian, or the rest of the Rebels that populate Rogue One, there’s a missing element of background to practically every character that prevents them from becoming truly memorable. It really speaks to the film’s larger character issues that the droid K-2SO steals the movie from the human actors.
The issues with characters extend even further into the recesses of the Empire, with Director Krennic feeling like a villain without much motivation. Ben Mendelsohn is chewing scenery as the caped villain but there’s a lacking to the character who seemingly only wants praise for his role in the development of the Death Star. Krennic is the lone member of the Empire that could qualify as a new character, playing opposite Darth Vader (once again voiced by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, resurrected 22 years after his death due to the magic of CGI). So much of Rogue One operates by just assuming that we’re knowledgeable of the Empire’s evil and does little to bring any added depth to the intergalactic fascists.
If there’s anything that’s just entirely underwhelming about Rogue One it is the manner with which it leans so heavily on nostalgia. There are a few wholly unnecessary callbacks to the original trilogy – including one where two minor characters from A New Hope appear for practically no reason at all. Knowing that the film takes place in the days before the opening of A New Hope makes it easy to understand the manner with which the film’s production design apes that of the original film, but Edwards takes this a step further by literally recreating scenes from A New Hope, like a shot for shot recreation of the steps before firing the Death Star. During the climactic battle, Edwards uses CGI to insert some of the pilots from A New Hope into the action of Rogue One. There’s no wit or reason for these ridiculous callbacks other than hoping nostalgia will do the heavy lifting instead of storytelling.
The fact is from this point forward, Star Wars needs to get away from two things – Death Stars and nostalgia. The Force Awakens leaned on our previous connections to these characters and while Rogue One doesn’t quite have that luxury with its roster of new characters it opts for shots and CGI-based callbacks hoping to achieve that same end of recreating the magic of the past through the technological wizardry of today. What I’d really love to see is a standalone Star Wars movie that truly does stand alone.
Rogue One is entertaining enough that it is a good movie despite its numerous shortcomings. It has a great look and moves with a swift pace that makes it pretty easy to overlook those flaws. There are some truly unique things that Rogue One does that are pretty refreshing and there are plenty of things that it does that are underwhelming. It’s a mixed bag of a Star Wars movie, so it’s basically par for the course. Though I was certainly entertained, it’s time to leave behind the Death Star and nostalgia and find some new corners in that galaxy far, far away.