It’s fitting that in a terrible year for studio films (worse than 2011), I’ve not only been disappointed by a Star Wars film, but have become worried that it’s falling in line with the fast foodification of blockbuster franchises. This is labeled a spinoff film, but it’s also a sequel to episode 3, and a direct prequel to the original 1977 Star Wars. It is the ultimate example of Hollywood’s current obsession with franchise-intertextuality where films exist because of previous films. This is a deeply troublesome way to tell stories.
Leading our journey back to space is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist who worked on the death star before escaping to a farming life with his family. The past comes back to haunt him when Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn) finds Galen and forces him to finish his work on the death star. Jyn is left alone to train with rebel leader, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
Cut to 15 years or so later, and the Empire is now the totalitarian leader of the galaxy, and Jyn has no interest in politics until she’s recruited to join a Dirty Dozen-esque group of rebels who have the impossible task of stealing the Death Star’s structural plans. Joining Jyn is Cassian (Diego Luna), Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), a robot named K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).
In the director’s chair is Gareth Edwards (Monsters, 2011, Godzilla, 2014). In Godzilla, Edwards used his character’s thin characterizations as a thematic device to display man’s insignificance in the face of a godlike being. The character’s submitting to the almost Malickian form of the film worked remarkably well for his large thematic ambitions. In Rogue One he tries something similar with man vs. tech, but it takes a back seat to plot and franchise loyalty :/. Without Godzilla‘s thematic context and form, these are just thin characters. Force Awakens was driven by an active protagonist whereas here Jyn is passive, but in a heavily plotted film with lots of spinning pieces, Edwards loses focus and it results in a poorly told story.
I don’t know that production problems (apparently there were extensive reshoots) should be a part of reviews, but here it definitely felt as if the first two acts were thrown in a blender and then sprinkled with humor. The timing isn’t quite right and it doesn’t tonally fit with Edwards’ morally grey, war-like vision. Some of the comedic moments are shot in close up and then awkwardly cut back to a mid shot, suggesting the studio’s inserts of comedy are true.
Wasted actors and thin characters are its continual plague. Jyn and co. visit at least 5 different locations in the first 30 minutes and never settle down to let us breathe in the environments and worlds (Suicide Squad Syndrome). Using characters as avatars for the audience is perfectly fine but why give Jyn a backstory and ask for emotional attachment if you’re going to use her as a passive character? Jyn and her father’s backstory pushes back against this mode of objective storytelling. This story brings us with redemptive anti-heroes rather than the fairy tales of the OG trilogy and prequels, but this script sets itself in the mold of that classic fairy tale, and Edwards is telling it in a different way visually.
This, plus the rushed plotting, renders the character’s as good looking robots spewing overly complicated exposition about a plot that should be pretty simple. Exotic locations, fan favorite characters and action beats prioritized over character moments, world building and efficient storytelling is not a good sign in terms of Disney’s plan for these films. It’s exactly what has made Marvel movies into filmic fast food. A digital recreation of an old character is not only jarringly fake but also might cross ethical line.
The first two acts are a storytelling slog, with brief moments of levity, but never settle down to let us live and breathe with these characters and the world’s they visit. Jyn Erso in particular is someone I desperately wanted to get to know, but never did — and this isn’t a dialogue issue. Think of The Force Awakens when we spent 15 minutes with Rey doing her daily rituals of scavenging, and walking through the lonely Searchers landscapes. Her sitting alone, wearing a helmet that doesn’t fit and smiling is a moment that’s rarely seen in franchise films. There’s none of that calm grace here, which makes Felicity Jones’ job a million times harder.
What does work are elements outside of Star Wars‘ usual pleasures. Gone are Jedis and space cowboys. Despite their lack of depth, the characters seem like real people you could talk to and not myths. There are moments here where Edwards creates a minimalist version of Star Wars, and his characters begin to find a thematic footing in the world — if only briefly.
Visually Edwards and DP Greg Fraser are able to breathe a new aesthetic into a galaxy we’ve now been to 8 times. Their best images here embrace humans being intruded upon by technology and machines (much like Godzilla making humanity insignificant). It’s important to note that Galen Erso escapes the empire to live on a farm, far away from anything resembling a man-made machine.
By farrrrrrrrrrr most interesting is this display of the Empire’s machine like infrastructure where any sign of someone being out of order means they’re decommissioned and easily replaced. Their faceless workers look like robots more than men. At its best, this film is about how regimes in power click, rotate, and fit together like machines while also pealing back the curtain to see where humanity is lost inside of these man made systems. I almost wish this film had been entirely set in the empire and we watched how they functioned like in Lang’s Metropolis. I get the sense that Edwards might’ve been better suited for something like that.
Edwards visualizes the Empire’s mechanized structure in space ships that slide and click together to create an even more imposing ship, and in the architecture inside of the Death Star, which is full of locked doors, pass codes, and control rooms.
Furthering the totalitarian ideas (and fascism of the prequels) are the locations of the Empire’s high ranking officers which appear more like old temples, castles, and towers instead of the usual space control rooms. More than any other Star Wars film, we see visually how their hierarchy works. Mendelsohn’s blue collar Orson Krennic is our guide through the Empire and exemplifies how humans lose their humanity in totalitarian regimes. Vader is the ultimate example of trading humanity for literal and figurative mechanical power. He has the two most exciting scenes in the entire film, but their existence also exemplifies this film’s fan service being prioritized over good storytelling. Krennic, while not a dimensional character, has the most interesting and dare I say, ironically poetic, arc of the entire film.
Dramatically this is a dull film, but its occasional exploration of how the Empire’s infrastructure works is refreshing. And it parallels the main story in which the heroes are navigating the empire’s systems to steal their structural plans.
This Star Wars film is all about systems and infrastructure, baby!!! Ten tickets please!
Another positive is the progressive casting of minorities in lead roles, which nicely parallels the Empire’s army of nameless white stormtroopers. The pieces for a good film are here, but sadly, it’s a film in which many scenes are *almost* good — and its subtext and drama never have enough time to coalesce.
Rogue One is messy, fan servicey, and lopsided, but there are a few standout scenes that display why Star Wars is Star Wars. Darth Vader is only here because he’s cool, but his scenes are stand up and clap worthy moments that remind us why he’s cinema’s most iconic villain. Towards the end there’s a surfacing of melancholy that I didn’t expect. It reminded me of Godzilla‘s poetic third act.
The finale is why it’d be worth seeing in theaters, although I wouldn’t call it necessary viewing. This is a compromised film. Beyond the Star Wars brand and Disney’s fast food tampering, there’s a morally grey, melancholy film that briefly rises above the awkward humor, jagged pacing, and 2nd unit action. Despite being underwhelmed on the whole, these quick moments are among the most poetic of the entire year in film. It’s frustrating that such interesting intentions are drowned amidst crowd pleasing action, fan service, and in your face tie-ins (with some truly awful CGI) to the original trilogy. This is a film that is what people think the prequels are. It is, hopefully, the worst star wars film ever made, and that’s good news, because it’s an interesting failure.