What do you want out of a Star Wars movie? If it’s merely the iconography, then Rogue One, subtitled A Star Wars Story in commercials but not on screen, delivers in spades. There are gorgeous, ominous shots of the Death Star dominating a planetary horizon. There’s Darth Vader, back in black but spouting James Earl Jones-delivered dialogue that’s new to our ears. There are returning sound effects — blaster fire and robots beeps — that will set off a sort of Pavlovian response in several generations of filmgoers.
But if it’s something different you’re interested in — the sense of adventure and mythic storytelling that Star Wars built its name on — you’re going to have to look elsewhere. In fact, Rogue One isn’t an adventure film at all. It’s an action movie full stop, dressed up in sci-fi clothes but owing more to World War II men-on-a-mission movies than to the films its spun-off from. (Vader himself even spouts a cheesy action-movie one-liner that would feel at home in an ’80s Schwartzenegger movie!) In theory, this sort of change is fine. Thanks to the wonders of basic economics, Disney is planning on giving us a new Star Wars movie every year for the rest of our lives. It’s going to get old real fast if they don’t try new things and play around with different genres.
Still, as the first of the spinoffs, Rogue One is not the best foot they could have put forward. Set immediately before the events of the original Star Wars (which is really just easier to call A New Hope now for clarity), the new film details how a small team of Rebel spies secured the Death Star plans that Luke Skywalker would later use to blow the thing to smithereens. Chief among them is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a scruffy loner who’s not interested in taking sides in the war but gets recruited because her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is the Death Star’s chief designer. She’s paired up with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel officer who’ll do whatever needs done to advance the cause, no matter how morally grey. Their team eventually expands to include a sardonic robot (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial pilot who defects to the Alliance (Riz Ahmed), a blind warrior-monk who believes strongly in the Force (Donnie Yen) and the monk’s quiet, heavy-weapon-carrying sidekick (Wen Jiang).
These are all fun archtypes to plug into a Star Wars movie. Who doesn’t want to see Yen bust out some martial-arts moves on a bunch of hapless Stormtroopers?! Unfortunately, director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Christ Weitz and Tony Gilroy are unable to develop them past the basic archtype phase. Audiences came out of The Force Awakens singing the praises of Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren — all lively, multi-dimensional characters who immediately felt like integral personalities to the Star Wars universe. Conversely, I’d guess that most Rogue One audience members won’t be able to recall a single character name (other than maybe Jyn’s) after leaving the theater.
It is Jyn who gets the closest thing resembling an arc. Over the course of the film, she moves from only caring about the fate of her father to becoming fully invested in the Rebel cause. But even that feels somewhat staid and perfunctory, perhaps hampered by the story tinkering and reshoots the film underwent during production. Or maybe it’s waylaid by the fact that Jones’s demeanor barely changes from start to finish. (Where’s the “I rebel” line from the trailer? I liked her delivery there!) There are hints that Cassian has deeper layers than what’s shown, but no full satisfying back-story ever emerges. On the Imperial side of things, Rogue One introduces a new baddie in Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), an Imperial Commander in charge of the Death Star project. Krennic is a different kind of villain in the Star Wars world than we’re used to — petty and self-serving; concerned about his legacy within the Empire more than anything — and Mendelsohn brings some interesting shades to the role. But, past the movie’s terrific first scene, he’s also not terribly threatening and not helped by a script that ensures the heroes are pretty much one step ahead the whole way.
While the movie fails to work up much of an investment with its characters, it does at least pile on some legit action sequences. X-Wings take flight in an airborne space battle that’s eons better than the assault on Starkiller Base that bogged down the climax of The Force Awakens. Rogue One‘s third act pulls that old Star Wars trick of whisking you back-and-forth around several different points of action at once, and I’ll take the grounded, sacrificial heroics here over the ludicrous CG-heavy battles that cluttered up too much of the prequel trilogy.
But ultimately this is a movie you dutifully follow along with rather than get swept up in. (I think the filmmakers knew this too. That’s why we get title cards announcing the arrival of each new planet.) For some, the stellar battle scenes built inside a universe we already love might be enough. For others, maybe the blatant fan wank will allow them to overlook some of the bigger flaws. And, yes, it is blatant, and, yes, it is of the wank variety. Vader is cool; his two scenes are badass and worthy of such an iconic character. As for the other on-the-nose nods to A New Hope … eh, I rolled my eyes a little, though I suppose they’re not too egregious. Your mileage may vary.
For me, I feel like I need more from a Star Wars movie. More heart, more adventure, more fun. I want characters that resonate. It’s a tricky proposition for Lucasfilm, no doubt. They need to keep these spinoffs varied enough to stay fresh while still capturing the essence of Star Wars without over-relying on characters and events from past films. That’s a tough, tough puzzle to solve, and Rogue One shows they haven’t quite cracked it yet.