The Star Wars cinematic franchise is unquestionably hallowed ground, boasting a rabid fan-base eager to consume any product with the official brand. It is often considered blasphemous in such circles to be even remotely critical. However, here I stand at the precipice ready to take on Rogue One with an honest critical analysis.
Admittedly, I’m not a die-hard Star Wars fan. Like most of my peers, I grew up with the original trilogy. A bit young to have seen the original run in theaters but indelibly affected by the impact they left on culture through the 80s and 90s. As the millennium drew to a close, the appetite to resurrect the series resulted in the prequel trilogy beginning with The Phantom Menace. By most measures the trilogy was an astronomical disappointment if not an outright failure. So another 11 years went by and here we are. The Force Awakens was a welcome and much needed rebirth for the franchise, but it wasn’t anything special. More so, it was a bit of a cluster-fuck with all the familiarity required to capture the passion of the fan-base and curiosity of children. The undeniable success sparked a new wave of consumer confidence and opened the door to countless spin-offs throughout the Star Wars universe.
This brings us to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The story of a young woman thrust into the middle of the ongoing conflict between the ominous empire and the ragtag group of rebel freedom fighters. Eventually, she winds up in the hands of the Rebellion as part of a mission to ascertain schematics to the Death Star. The very same schematics used by the Rebellion in A New Hope to blow up the Death Star at the end of the film. This movie tells the story of their sacrifice.
Director Gareth Edwards has had an interesting career so far. In only his third feature film he was handed the reigns to the most lucrative cinematic property in the galaxy. His feature length directorial debut Monsters (2010) was widely acclaimed for its ingenuity and style. His prize, the director’s chair for 2014’s Godzilla. Given a franchise rich in history but relative anonymity in the US box office was an intriguing test. One that he passed the old fashioned way. He did his homework and he studied. His penchant for detail and astute observational skills served him well and made him a strong choice to head this project. Early on in the film, his fingerprints are apparent. Edwards is a minimalist even under the most grandiose of circumstances. The film’s opening scene carries a familiar sense of foreboding common in his work. The action sequences are well thought out and executed while still favoring minimalism, providing a sense of realism sorely lacking from the franchise.
Greig Fraser did a good job as cinematographer. Creating an appealing aesthetic considering a substantial amount of the exteriors were computer generated is a difficult challenge. It forced him to maximize the physical environments in order to compete with the CGI elements. His hand in crafting the action sequences was integral to Edwards’s vision and played out well, especially during the film’s final act. Michael Giacchino’s score fit the film and the franchise well. Not quite the music we’ve become accustomed to over the years, but crafted to convey the emotion associated with the franchise music. From a technical standpoint, the movie was masterfully done. The art direction was unequivocally Star Wars, evidence of Disney’s deep pockets and sizable investment. Lee Sandales’s set decoration carried over from The Force Awakens and brought a consistent vision to the newly minted cinematic enterprise. David Crossman and Glyn Dillon provided a rugged but functional costume design for the Rebellion while preserving unique character for key individuals.
So let’s talk about those characters a little bit. Felicity Jones plays our heroine Jyn Erso, the daughter of a high ranking Empire engineer working on the completion of the Death Star, who finds herself at the center of the biggest conflict in the galaxy. Jones went from relative unknown to A-list actress for her portrayal of Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane in the The Theory of Everything, so I was excited when she was cast to play the lead. Sadly, her performance was nothing special and often hard to believe. Hardly her fault. I would have taken the role in a heartbeat if I were her and she had already proved her caliber as an actress. It was up to the writing team to bring out the best in Jones, to inspire and bring a great character to life. The character was poorly written and rushed through her developmental arc. The progression from angsty criminal to Rebel figurehead, inspiring war-hardened soldiers, is haphazardly constructed and quite frankly isn’t believable.
Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay for the film but John Knoll and Gary Whitta wrote the story. Weitz had previously written the screenplay for About a Boy and Antz, but mostly works as a producer. Gilroy (the most credentialed member of the writing team) penned The Bourne Identity franchise, The Devil’s Advocate, Michael Clayton and adapted Armageddon among others. Whitta wrote The Book of Eli, which I liked a lot, but also did the widely disastrous Will Smith vehicle After Earth. As for Knoll, almost the entirety of his career has been spent working in visual effects with his only writing credential being Rogue One. Considering all that, the screenplay itself it far from a train wreck, for the most part it’s very functional and works well in context of the bigger picture, just not very substantive outside of a few bits of dialogue scattered throughout the film. I think it’s just a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, favoring the general plot over the character depth. In spite of that, there were still some stand out performances.
Ben Mendelsohn was very good and immensely unlikable as Orson Krennic, a social climbing Empire lieutenant commander tasked with realizing the Death Star project. A galactic Hans Landa of sorts, his presence on screen both commanding and annoying. Cursed by relentless and shallow ambition, Krennic serves as the films primary villain. The subservient to Peter Cushing’s digitally reborn Grand Moff Tarkin. The Australian Mendelsohn has a certain cadence in his speech that gives him an intangible scene stealing quality. A true craftsman, patient and articulate, he carves the words from the air and shapes the scenes to his liking. The film’s opening scene features him opposite Mads Mikkelsen who portrays our heroine’s father, Galen Erso. Mikkelsen is good in everything he does, and this was no exception. Fresh off his role as the antagonist from Doctor Strange, Mads brings a sense of gravity to all his projects. Always bringing conviction to his roles despite the setting. He was an excellent choice, but I wish he had been a bigger part of the movie.
Diego Luna was a welcome addition to a more diverse cast than usual for Star Wars. He did a very good job as Cassian Andor, bringing a lot of heart and passion to the character. As a Rebel stalwart, Cassian had seen the worst of the galaxy and was more rugged than previous heroes in the series. Very reminiscent of Han Solo (intentionally of course), but more pained by his past and layered with the consequence of his decisions. His bodyguard android, K-2SO, echoed the relationship Solo shared with Chewbacca in the original series. Voiced by Alan Tudyk, K-2SO is one of the better characters in the film.
The same can’t be said for Saw Gerrera, another victim of a rushed story arc. The Gerrera name undoubtedly was meant to embody a revolutionary guerrilla connotation, but the character had very little screen time to build that kind of respect. There was a lot of anticipation leading to his reveal and it simply fell flat. Forest Whitaker just didn’t fit. The character was interesting, but ultimately poorly executed. Whitaker’s choice of accent didn’t help matters, but I can understand why he was overreaching. Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang played warrior monks, Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus respectively. Although the were fun additions to the ensemble and integral in several of the best action scenes, their shtick was a bit too much comic relief for my liking. Riz Ahmed was much more balanced as Bodhi Rook, an empire defector tasked with smuggling key information to the Rebellion. He’s blessed with the ability to change tone fluidly as the temperature of a scene heats and cools. A valuable trade skill that will serve him well moving forward.
Rogue One is a good movie, but it’s not an amazing film. It doesn’t have to be, it’s Star Wars and that’s usually enough (certainly for children, the general public and the die-hards). Those declaring it the best movie in the franchise are simply mistaken. All the best elements of it are either borrowed from previous iterations or meant to induce nostalgic romanticizing. It’s not original, and that’s okay…it wasn’t meant to be. That being said, it’s fair to say Rogue One is probably the 3rd best movie in the franchise behind The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope.
Recommendation: If you haven’t seen it yet, go check it out. It’s family friendly and it’s success in the box office is a testament to its wide reaching appeal. If you’re thinking about spending your consumer dollar on it for subsequent viewings, there are good alternatives in theaters as well.