Rogue One Review: Prestige Fan Fiction
- -Strong cast
- -Visually impressive
- -Modern battle sequences
- -Most of the dialogue
- -The cameos
- -The Williams "lite" score
- -Prequel stakes (we know what’s gonna happen)
- -No further insight into the war
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first of the many Star Wars “sidequels” promised by Disney when it bought the Star Wars property from George Lucas in 2012. Suggested by ILMer John Knoll (story and visual FX supervisor credit), Rogue One tells the story of what really happened when the Rebels got the “stolen data tapes” of the Death Star to Princess Leia, i.e. the plot device that propelled Episode IV into our mass consciousness back in 1977.
So, yeah, we’re back there again: Prequel Land. Considering that last year’s The Force Awakens jump-started the whole series forward again—back into unknown story territory—it’s an odd choice to be taking audiences back into an old Star Wars story where we already know the ending. But you know, nostalgia and built-in fan recognition and all that. And Darth Vader. (He’s in the trailers.)
While The Force Awakens did indulge in fan service, Rogue One ratchets it up to another level. Aside from Darth Vader, there are cameo appearances (and more) that use the latest motion capture technologies and CGI animation to satiate devoted Star Wars fans. But will they feel sick afterwards? I think Star Wars fans want all-new material rather than gimmicky homages that pull you directly out of the storyline.
Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) has in some ways the unenviable task of making another Star Wars prequel, navigating the Disney marketing demands and raising a non-episodic Star Wars movie beyond the level of Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and the Star Wars Holiday Special. That’s a low bar, for sure, and Edwards goes way beyond it, with the aid of some of the best dialogue writing in the series from Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy of the Bourne series, who was brought in later, presumably for his prowess with intrigue and twisty action dialogue.
Unfortunately, there are also moments of dialogue—in particular a parting speech from the mysterious Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and what is meant to be a rousing speech from main character Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)—that feel clunky and/or just plain cheesy.
Oscar-nominated Felicity Jones pulls her weight in the movie and offers up a convincing portrayal of the now predictably standard Star Wars heroine who’s both mostly strong and sometimes vulnerable and who has a tragic family past. With an ability to produce sincere and complex emotions, she might even be one of the best actors in the entire series. Interestingly, her controversial “I rebel” line from the trailers has been conspicuously dropped from the actual movie.
But let’s face it, people, her Stormtrooper disguise is not fooling anybody.
Diego Luna is solid in a somewhat underdeveloped role as Captain Cassian Andor. Memorable supporting performances are turned in by Nightcrawler actor Riz Ahmed as an Imperial pilot defector and the Ip Man himself Donnie Yen as a blind protector of the Kyber Crystal temple.
Ben Mendelsohn, who plays baddie Director Orson Krennic, not only gets to wear a cool Imperial cape, but he brings a unique approach and some interesting mannerisms that make you wish he was used in the new sequels.
Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, although prominently featured in the trailers, is sadly not given much of a character. His part feels like it’s been re-written and re-edited multiple times because his motivations are unsatisfying and the end result is a head-scratcher. The pressing question, however, of why he’s bald and not bald in the various clips from the trailers is indeed finally answered.
Similar to BB-8 in The Force Awakens, the Iron Giant-esque, reprogrammed Imperial security droid known as K-2SO (or simply “Kay”) really steals the show. Voiced by Alan Tudyk and written with panache, this character feels like a breath of fresh air in a story that is frequently hemmed in by all the mythology. He is the most convincing and fun CGI character in the whole movie.
Because the overall cast is very strong, Darth Vader and the handful of surprise cameos end up more distracting than satisfying, although their appearances are intended to tie the storylines together. In his brief screen time, Lord Vader doesn’t feel real at times and occasionally comes across as a CGI-created plastic toy. (David Prowse was not invited to participate but James Earl Jones does lend the iconic voice.)
The Rogue One design team has created some cool-looking Star Wars landscapes that don’t feel like rehashes of previous Star Wars locales. The vistas of Jedha, the rocky spires of Eadu, the Icelandic backdrop of Jyn Erso’s childhood home and the coastal jungle of Scarif still feel part of Star Wars but also new and exciting. There’s also a scene involving prequel planet Mustafar, which may sound like a bad idea, but it gives a chance for some awesome old Ralph McQuarrie concepts to be finally realized on screen.
It’s now well known that Rogue One is the first live-action theatrical Star Wars movie not scored by John Williams. Instead the job fell to Michael Giacchino, a frequent collaborator of J.J. Abrams. Giacchino is a fine composer in his own right, but the score comes across as a “lite” version of Williams. The opening title card feels goofy with its short TV show-style musical cue, sans the traditional Star Wars fanfare. In the end, a more contemporary-style score by the likes of Alexandre Desplat (who was originally hired but bowed out due to scheduling) might’ve helped stake out a unique musical identity for Rogue One.
Full credit to Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) for their visceral, guerrilla-style battle sequences, which are real highlights of the movie. In a good way, gamers who’ve played Star Wars: Battlefront and its recent expansion pack Rogue One: Scarif will enjoy how the action scenes recreate moments from the game. Yes, we’ve now come full circle in that the movies imitate the games that were inspired by the movies.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers weren’t content with ground fighting and returned to the formulaic space battle/ground battle/personal battle third act that has become such a standard for the series since Return of the Jedi. We even get Admiral Ackbar’s greenish cousin, but he lacks a meme-worthy moment. Fans will have to continue to wait for the smaller scale action/weightier drama of The Empire Strikes Back in some other installment… maybe Episode VIII?
Because the story lacks the spiritual and dramatic weight of The Force/Skywalker elements from the main episodes, Edwards and team have given Jyn Erso, Captain Andor, Saw Gerrera and the other rebels a generic mantra of “hope” as motivation to defeat evil against impossible odds. The Force is mentioned in the movie, but its relationship to the Rebellion is not clear. While Edwards and team are trying to point towards “A New Hope” of Episode IV, there’s never a cathartic moment that ties in the theme as we had at the end of the original movie like, “The Force will be you…always.”
Rogue One is an entertaining movie but it lives solely inside the Star Wars universe and doesn’t resonate beyond that. Unlike the original Star Wars movies which had an enormous cultural impact, Rogue One’s impact is contained to its fans.