Can a film functioning presented as a prequel to a much-beloved work of genuine art craft or rework its inspiration into a valuable and resonant wellspring of its own? Must they forever be judged on an unfair curve resulting from audiences’ knowledge of future events that dilute suspense?
The answer is yes to the first (see Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, Better Call Saul, X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and no to the second, but that is only my belief. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, by unfortunate design, has no such goal in sight yet has already ensured its place high on the power rankings for appearing more competently constructed than other Star Wars prequels (it isn’t). Cheating both questions to the surefire reward of box office billions and critical sycophancy – Disney truly has conquered the world.
Rogue One is treacherous tripe and hollow hogwash. It is blight upon the evocative beauty of Star Wars, though for different reasons than The Force Awakens. Yet the two, despite their mutual failure, are opposite only as two sides of a hyper-inflationary coin. The emphasis is on the word ‘hyper.’
It is my hope that the words here to come, however eviscerating, will be understood solely as a constructive artistic and cultural critique, but with no malice or condescension aimed at anyone who finds enjoyment with this new, and in my opinion, malfeasant nu-Star Wars franchise. I do not believe that critics, audiences, or whatever I purport to be should be judged on their tastes solely by what they take away from movies like these. I truly thrill to learn of your rapturous enjoyment of that which I cannot, and that is indeed the exact reaction I expect will meet this film. But I cannot, with any modicum of honesty, share in it.
So if you don’t want your bubble burst, you may not wish to read further. This review is not especially nice. It is also not spoiler-free, and as it turns out there are indeed things to spoil in the film. This is your warning.
I had, from a month prior, an early draft of the prolonged critique of The Force Awakens that I had once sworn never to write. It boils down to two essential points. The Force Awakens loudly strummed the nostalgic heartstrings to propitiate the faux-fragile under the pretense of repentance for George Lucas’s sins through an emotionally-sapped dry hump of a plot for toy marketing. Take out the retreads of A New Hope and all that’s left is a knotty narration full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And it’s all cynically crafted in the service of an audience deluded enough to believe that their lampooning of the Prequels make them sophisticated movie-watchers.
Yes, the Star Wars fandom may well now be the worst fandom in existence. So out of touch with the artistic essence of their favorite property, fans are ripe for exploitation by the muckraker’s paradise that is now the Disney fan-fiction conveyor belt. There was nothing The Force Awakens did that Ryan Coogler’s magnificent Creed didn’t do light-years better in that same year. But where that film at least shows promise of a new beginning, Rogue One cashes in on the familiar through sheer suppression of originality. All for the fans.
It’s easy to miss this as the film cycles through planets like it’s a Magic School Bus adventure in space. Rogue One is film rushing towards its Easter eggs, eager to show off the computer effects it took to realize them. It’s not like Furious 7 where CGI was literally necessary to give an appropriate send-off to a central character in the wake of Paul Walker’s death. Here it’s a hack tool. It compromises the old theme of the grunt’s angst in war that Director Gareth Edwards earnestly attempted to update with this film before the re-shoots began. The first forty-five minutes are as clunky as any Star Wars film has ever been and the music, the first non-John Williams score, is blander than post-Iron Man Three Marvel.
The story is even more uninspired. As a child, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) evades the Empire but watches its jackboots gun down her mother and forcibly conscript her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) for his engineering skills to create the Death Star. She spends the next fifteen years underground until she is rescued by the Rebel Alliance, after they learn of a defecting imperial pilot who confirms their suspicions about a planet-killing super-weapon and has information on where to find Galen. The Rebels pair her up with infiltration specialist Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and wisecracking reprogrammed imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) for a mission to extract the pilot and use him to – so they tell her – find her father.
This is, of course, a bald lie. The ragtag, disheveled guerrilla Rebels’ real not-so-nice agenda is actually to kill Galen. The why of it isn’t explained especially well but take for granted that they assume that doing so would stop the weapon from being created. That leads to the first discernible story problem. The insurgent leader, Saw Guerrera (Forest Whitaker), keeping this pilot imprisoned on a desert canyon planet is the same man who rescued Jyn as a child but whom the Rebels call “an extremist” for no articulate reason. But his only function is to capture Jyn & Cassian after catching them up in a Fallujah-style street fight with the stormtroopers, give them a plot detail, and then die when the Death Star test fires on the city. He is never mentioned again. There’s no hashing out of any of the moral ambiguities earlier sequences had teased, no credible exchange of perspective, and no decision making. It’s just a boasting of “enlightenment” due to his having witnessed a hologram sent by Galen, revealing (1) his true motive for joining the Death Star project (sabotage) and (2) the design flaw he covertly constructed.
And that’s the next problem. For an ostensibly feminist feature, Rogue One doesn’t think much of Jyn Erso. Nowhere is this clearer than at the end, where the Death Star’s strike upon the planet Scarif (the setting of the final battle), that projects an awe-striking tidal wave of impending white death that sends them off to nothingness, is then immediately book-ended by the arrival of Darth Vader in a bafflingly hackneyed hallway massacre sequence that sends off the Rebel Blockade Runner straight into the beginning of A New Hope. Through this sequence, Rogue One reveals its true hand of cards after two hours of bluffs; it had nothing.
If anyone is the hero of this story, it’s Galen Erso, all because of his deeds we never saw. He’s the closest one in the movie to getting anything resembling catharsis. Jyn thankfully doesn’t repeat the cringe-worthy “I rebel!” line from the trailer. But her journey in the film is effectively discovering all the ways in which her father is awesome and not the monster the Rebels saw fit to kill, even though it wasn’t clear that she ever truly thought of him that way.
This substance-free sugar rush of a flick contains only one amoeba of an idea that isn’t entirely lost in the editing. It is that Jyn & Cassian and Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) – by far the biggest victim of Rogue One’s narrative confusion – are rats in a maze, unspoken victims of the Force’s twisted games. One of the film’s only decent cinematic qualities (adequate battle choreography aside) is the way the Death Star’s firing sequences (plural) are filmed. It looks like they’re playing a video game, and nothing extracts the film’s contrast of scope clearer than this. But don’t think too hard on it lest you seek to hurt yourself. These characters run into each other three to four different times in the film yet go without a single meaningful interaction, and are really all just trying to keep up with Galen. That Galen’s sabotage was all done in Jyn’s name is given messiah treatment by the film but imparts no genuine consequence upon anyone.
I’ve barely mentioned Director Krennic, a schizophrenic subject badly in need of deleted scenes for insight into just what Rogue One wanted to do with him. But at the end of the day, the point is this. These are not characters. These are not even stock tropes. They’re vacant vessels converted from what looked like dark satire to a drab action romp. The grim, grimy state of Jyn & Cassian’s lives and the mess of Krennic’s career repeat themselves ad nauseam, but they amount to nothing because they are built on nothing. Even less can be extrapolated from the sidekicks. Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), the defecting pilot is another agent of Galen’s out of loyalty and nothing else. Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) are both names I had to look up to remember. They are each one-trick, action-figure ponies with a cool move to bust before their indistinguishable deaths.
The final battle has some impressive action feats that decidedly surpass The Force Awakens but even it can’t escape its own tediousness. The movie gets points for trying to stay grounded, and mechanically most things make sense, but on more than one occasion the film doesn’t show what characters are driving at until the very last moment of its respective sequence.
Is this how Star Wars is to be now? Is this all that Disney Corp., with its access to talent and tech can come up with: stiffly monotonous fan fiction, filling in for text crawls and answering questions nobody asked? What keeps this from sinking to the abysmal depths of The Force Awakens is only the fact that Rogue One has neither the former’s tiresome winking nor the disingenuous rot at its artistic roots. It has only a crippling insecurity of personality and individuality. Sort of like the Empire itself.
 Both are soft-rebooting 7th installments of an iconic series that began with a groundbreaking 70’s classic, where old characters (one of whom dies) pass the torch to new colorful characters, whom are products of prior events and are haunted by the specter of generational failure, yet determined to live up to the glory of their fathers.
 Whack-a-Mole but with planetary craters.