Rogue One, the eighth entry in the live-action Star Wars feature series, and the first stand-alone anthology “Star Wars Story,” is the prequel fans didn’t really know they wanted. After George Lucas‘ ill-received prequel trilogy, Disney (now the owners of the property) has made a bold move with their sophomore entry in the franchise, once again returning to an era that precedes the original series; only this time, instead of portraying events that predate the series by decades or centuries, Rogue One takes place just before the original trilogy – by minutes!
Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a young woman with a checkered past who has been coerced by the Rebel Alliance to track down her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant weapon designer forced to perfect a planet destroying super weapon for the evil Galactic Empire under the direction of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a power-hungry Imperial Officer seeking to prove himself to Darth Vader (James Earl Jones). Together with Rebel spy, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and his sardonic right-hand droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Jyn sets out into the heart of the Empire, recruiting a handful of companions along the way while grasping for any hope that their efforts can galvanize the Rebels and save the galaxy from certain threat.
Rogue One is a bit of a mixed bag. From brilliance to blandness, it is uneven at best, forgettable at worst. Although its faults never reach the meager lows of the prequels, it lacks the fun, charm, and vigor that vitalized the original trilogy and even last year’s The Force Awakens. Regardless, there’s a lot to enjoy from its near-perfect visual effects, breathless cinematography, and riveting battle scenes. Not since Return of the Jedi has a Star Wars space battle been as exciting. Michael Giacchino‘s score, the first in the franchise not done by the legendary John Williams, also adequately captures the essence of the series.
Where Rogue One struggles, however, is twofold. Primarily, any fan of the series walking in clearly knows how it’s going to play out, practically to the letter. There is little surprise other than a few franchise cameos here and there, some more subtle than others. While there are a few sparse moments of inspiration (such as an explanation of a decades old plot hole), the gradual predictability of Rogue‘s plot leaves the film feeling rather flat, as if witnessing a predestinated play-by-play. The spotty pacing and often stodgy opening act doesn’t help, with some inexplicable, non-pertinent scenes popping up here and there, such as a bizarre tentacle monster torture (guess they’re marketing to Japan) that is never mentioned again nor has any effect to the overall plot.
Secondly, despite some good performances, the new characters lack the spark that has primarily endowed the series with the longevity it has had. With the exception of Jyn and, to a degree, Cassian, none of the characters feel fleshed out beyond the few odd quips, gimmicks, and combat styles. Donnie Yen fairs better than most of the film’s secondary characters as a Force-faithful, blind warrior; however, beyond a couple of fun fight scenes, there’s not much more to him. In comparison, despite (rightful) accusations of The Force Awakens being a retread of A New Hope, its new litany of characters were well-developed and memorable. At the very least, I remembered most of their names after the first showing. Try doing the same with Rogue One.
In spite of its dodgy first act and pacing issues, Rogue One does have the uncommon quality where a film improves as it goes on, finding its footing firmly for a third act explosion of action – plus a good dose of long-awaited fan-service featuring a character battle that audiences will no doubt walk away identifying as the highlight of the film. The return of some of the series’ classic characters (especially in their younger forms) is simultaneously joyous and indicative of the dreariness of the new characters. One surprise addition (which I won’t spoil by name here) is the return of one particular New Hope character who, despite the actor’s death, has been resurrected via CGI. Thankfully, it properly feels like an homage to the actor rather than a cheap trick; unfortunately, it is tough to get past the fact that it is a digital recreation with the end-result, as impressive as it is, being quite distracting.
Rogue One had the unenviable task of attempting to bring something bold and new to the Star Wars franchise while being weighed down by a plot conditioned by the original series. In these respects, it succeeds more often than it fails notwithstanding its many core flaws. The third act beach assault, shot with a gritty, hand held approach, finally brings the “war” into Star Wars and is worth the price of admission alone. The unveiling of the Empire’s AT-AT’s (first seen in The Empire Strikes Back) is notably compelling. You really feel the size and weight of these vehicles plus, perhaps more than before, the implicit danger they represent. Yet, once again, when the most memorable parts of the film hinge on what has come before, what does that say about this particular Star Wars Story?