Earlier this morning, my father asked me to explain what Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is about. Upon answering him, he responded, “So it’s just an unnecessary cash grab.” And you know what? He’s not wrong. Rogue One is, in fact, an unnecessary cash grab by Disney in order to milk this Star Wars thing for all it’s worth. But that doesn’t make it a bad thing-not at all. In fact, Rogue One is a thrilling, exciting, well-made war film, and features several great sequences, in both the Star Wars lexicon as well as film overall. However, its existence does pose several questions in terms of filmmaking, Star Wars canon, and overall purpose.
Shortly after the transition from the Republic into the Galactic Empire, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is taken from his family to begin work on an ultimate weapon, the Death Star. His daughter, Jyn (played as an adult by Felicity Jones), witnesses her father’s conscription and grows up into a petty thief and rabble rouser, claiming alliance to neither the Empire or the Rebels determined to take them down. When an Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) defects with a message from Galen about not only the Death Star’s completion, but also an important weakness in the design, Jyn reluctantly joins Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a team of scoundrels (including Jiang Wen, Donnie Yen, and a robot played by Alan Tudyk) on a quest across the galaxy, eventually leading to an all-out suicide assault on a key Imperial base in order to steal the plans for a certain Rebel Princess.
I think what makes this film so fascinating, in both a good and bad way, is how it fits itself into the narrative. Looking at it as an individual film, it’s really quite good. Something of a futuristic Dirty Dozen/Magnificent Seven type deal, it’s fun watching this odd collection of scoundrels and morally ambiguous figures come together to try to work towards the greater good. It’s something we should all strive towards, and a message that reads to this time as incredibly uplifting. Each and every action sequence is expertly crafted, culminating in a third act full-out war sequence that serves as a children’s version of Saving Private Ryan. It’s thrilling filmmaking, and it speaks to Gareth Edwards’ strengths as an action/sci-fi director (I love his Godzilla film, and I’ve heard good things about Monsters). However, it also features extended callbacks to the original films. And that’s not always a bad thing-it allows them to fix the common jokes about the series. Oh, it’s such a major coincidence that there’s a vent that can explode the entire Death Star? Well, how about this: it was intentionally designed like that by a saboteur. Suck it, haters! Yes, throwbacks like this are cool, but then there are others that kind of throw a wrench into the entire series. Fleshing out the “Rebel spies” is all well and good, but it also paints you into a corner: if Vader is aware of where the plans are, Leia trying to lie her ass off at the beginning of A New Hope makes no sense. Furthermore, knowing the outcome going in destroys all sense of stakes. Hope is all well and good, and it’s nice to see how these things play out, but it’s never in a way that seems to mesh with the rest of the series, and the story that they’ve built.
Let’s use the Darth Vader scene as a microcosm. Yes, Darth Vader is in this film, voiced by James Earl Jones and played by a variety of massive, looming actors. And it’s great to have him onscreen, speaking menacing lines and performing Force Chokes and whatnot. There’s a sequence near the end of the film where Vader is portrayed as a Michael Myers-esque figure, slashing people with his lightsaber like something out of a horror movie. It’s one of the best sequences of the year. However, that’s the problem: based on the timeframe of this film, we are about two weeks away from the events of Star Wars, at best. Which means that over the course of a few weeks, Vader goes from leaping through the air and being a complete badass to walking around in a circle and just kind of poking people with his lightsaber. It makes him look weak in the original movies, and makes no sense in terms of the character’s aging process or emotional arc. It also isn’t as exciting to hear Jones’ voice as you’d think-his age is clear in his voice, and it makes hearing Vader speak a much sadder event than it should be.
For what it’s worth, the technical design on this movie is gorgeous. The production design is some of the finest in any Star Wars film, both with the gorgeous landscapes and the inner halls of the Death Star (you’ll never convince me there’s a better set in any of the eight movies than that half an hour rescue scene in the original film). They also try to recapture some of the effects of the original, especially the powering up of the super laser and the new and improved blasters that add to the film’s sheen. And speaking of hearkening back to the originals, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Disney’s recent works in digital recreations. It was interesting to see Wall Street-era Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, and it was a little unsettling to see Back to School-era Robert Downey, Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. But the complete digital recreation of Peter Cullen as Grand Moff Tarkin seems a bit unnecessary, and there’s another youthful recreation during the end of the film that just seems…unnatural. No man should have that power (as a side note: said character utters the final line of the film, and while I liked it at the time, the more I think about it and what it means, the madder I get. See the movie and then we can talk about it more).
The cast in this film is completely expendable-they are only intended to be one piece of a much larger puzzle-but they perform their roles admirably. As the “leads,” Jones and Luna are both fairly competent, even if they aren’t as interesting as, say, Daisy Ridley or John Boyega. Of the rest of the Rogue One crew, the standouts are Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. While Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe walks the fine line between entertaining and stereotypical, he provides such a heart to the blind Force believer that you can’t help but like him. And while it’s subject for debate, the relationship between Îmwe and Wen’s Baze Malbus is one of the sweetest (and romantic? Perhaps I’m just reading too far into it) of the year. Another great performance is given by Ben Mendelsohn, who chews the scenery every single time he shows up as the villainous Orson Krennic. However, if this movie is stolen by anyone, it’s Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, a droll, sarcastic robot who is an absolute joy every time he’s onscreen. He may be the best droid in the entire series. Basically, what I’m trying to say is Alan Tudyk should be in everything. Meanwhile, the weakest part of the cast is Forest Whitaker, who has spent the latter part of his career going full Nicolas Cage. None of his lines of dialogue make any sense (and that’s saying a lot for a sci-fi film with its own mythology. What’s worse, every line and every expression he has seems forced, phoned in, or apathetic. It’s not a very good performance, and it kind of amazes me this man is an Oscar winner.
I guess the long story short of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is it’s a very good film so long as you don’t think about it. If you go into it as a fan, just expecting to be entertained, and hoping for some nice callbacks to the rest of the series with a few great action set pieces thrown in, you’ll be happy. But the minute you begin trying to dissect it, you’re just left with many questions, most of which are just “Why?” And the general answer is, “Because Disney wanted more money.” If you can be at peace with that, you’ll love it. If you can’t, you’ll be left frustrated and disinterested. And if you’re like me, you’ll be left enjoying it for what it is while still struggling to understand its placement in the world.