Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first stand-alone Star Wars film. In that regard, it shares a lot conceptually with its own plucky band of heroes. It is surrounded on all sides, not by stormtroopers, of course, but rather by expectation. And to me, at least, it feels like it broke under the strain.
Warning: The following contains major spoilers for Rogue One.
This was Disney’s first try at creating an annual movie event for the Star Wars universe. It’s clearly an attempt to replicate Marvel’s success at the same, and who can blame them for trying? But this movie had a lot of heavy lifting to do. Some of that weight comes from fan expectation while some of it comes from the poor choices that the movie makes along the way.
I’ve only seen the film once, mind you, and my thoughts are still coming together. But here’s a few points where I felt that Rogue One buckled under its own weight.
Rogue One tried to travel too many light years in one movie. The end result was that scenes and characters were spread thin.
We start out on Jyn Erso’s home planet, where we linger for a time with her family, experiencing the tragedy of her mother’s death and the abduction of her father. Saw Gerrera enters the scene to rescue her, but we’re left without a clear understanding of who he is, how he’s close to the Erso family and why he’s their choice to raise and protect the orphaned child.
The reunion between Jyn and Gerrera, now a rebel extremist, later in the film does little to patch over that gap.
After the languid start, we’re moved 15 years ahead to a prison break. Suddenly Jyn is rescued, identified and quickly informed of the plight of the Alliance and their nascent rebellion. Then we’re whisked off to Jedha, a desert planet with a distinctly Middle Eastern flair. Then off to an Imperial research facility. Then back to the rebel base. Then to the island planet Scarif.
That’s an awful lot of running around for one movie. It’s so much travel, in fact, that many key conversations actually happen during hyperspace jumps, with starlines flashing by through the windows. After a while, I began to get the feeling that some characters were getting left behind in the shuffle.
Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus were fascinating when we first met them, but by the end of the film they began to feel superfluous.
The defected Imperial pilot, Bodhi? After more than two hours I still don’t know anything at all about him.
Too much of a good thing
I get the impulse that the studio or the writers or whoever wanted to include Darth Vader in the film. But, to my eye at least, every time he stepped on screen it felt like I was watching a different movie altogether.
I’m not entirely sure why that is.
Is it because Vader’s role was beefed up or slimmed down at some point after the initial filming was done? That’s just a rumor. Was it because James Earl Jones’ voice and intonation were subtly different? Was it because it was a different actor inside the famous black costume? Maybe.
I just know what I felt, what I saw when I first watched Vader’s scenes. They felt gratuitous and they looked cheaply made.
By the time Vader was chasing those hapless rebel troops down the corridors of the crippled flagship, I was squirming in my seat and rolling my eyes. Vader didn’t feel threatening. He just looked silly, like a cosplayer on a set that was a little too small.
Perhaps it would have been better to show less Vader overall, and to keep him more in the shadows.
Some reviewers have said that Cassian Andor’s character was weakly played throughout the movie, that actor Luna didn’t fill out the role as well as he could have. I also found Andor lacking, but I don’t think it’s Luna’s fault at all.
I blame the anonymous informant that Andor meets early in the movie.
In that alleyway, Andor makes the difficult decision to murder that poor man rather than drag him along behind as he makes his escape. That moment is there, in my opinion, to establish Andor as a good man willing and able to do bad things on behalf of the Alliance. It sets up his entire character arc, including his eventual decision not to assassinate Galen Erso and his decision to redeem himself by joining Jyn on her suicide mission to retrieve the Death Star plans.
But that initial bit in the alleyway is so poorly executed that it detracts from every other scene that Andor is in for the rest of the movie.
In my opinion, that scene needed to make Andor appear darker and more ambiguous in his motives. Rather THAN panicky and shrill, that informant needed to have a personal connection to Andor. Killing him had to mean something.
Sadly, that just didn’t happen and Luna is taking the blame for it.
I like a good war movie more than most. So when I heard that Rogue One was a war movie, I got pretty excited. But on screen, during the third act especially, I was let down.
Early on I thought the ambush on Jedha was excellently shot. It reminded me of Black Hawk Down, both in the verticality of the battle and in the way it established front lines and the placement of enemy forces.
The running gun battle, the martial arts and the humor sprinkled throughout the fight made it memorable. But it also told a story.
When you saw Andor drop Saw Gerrera’s grenadier, protecting Jyn who had taken cover behind the crippled Imperial tank, you could understand why he took the shot. It informed how the rebel extremists treated both of them later on, and helped to move the story forward.
The same can’t be said for the climactic ground battle on Scarif.
The trouble for me was that there were no clear front lines. There wasn’t a specific point that the Imperials were trying to defend, and while the rebels had objectives, they were ambiguous.
Is there no one here brave enough to go throw that switch? Please, won’t someone plug in the cable and rewire the thing?
On screen it read like a series of disparate, unrelated firefights, a mish-mash of vignettes showing off the individual initiative of nameless soldiers on a beach. People I had never met, had no connection to whatsoever, were bravely dying as they ran from cover to cover toward ... nothing.
Comparing it to Saving Private Ryan isn’t really fair, since it’s one of the very best amphibious landings ever portrayed on film. But when you use that movie’s opening scene as a conceptual model, you can begin to see where Rogue One could have done better.
When Tom Hanks arrives in Normandy, France, he has an objective — to open up an exit through the cliffs to allow U.S. armor to move off the beach. He and his men are always moving towards that objective, pressing forward as they lose men left and right. It’s that goal which allows the battle to tell a story and grow its characters. It shows the audience what it means for them to sacrifice their lives for a common goal by providing that goal.
Rogue One’s climactic battle simply doesn’t do that on the ground. They’re just all sorta running around behind boxes, trying to do as much damage to each other as they can.
At the battle’s climax, when the black-clad Deathtroopers land on the beach, I have no idea where they’re landing or why. That poor structure completely wastes the scene after Chirrut Îmwe dies. At that point, Malbus decides to make a suicidal charge with his heavy blaster, but the audience is never shown what he accomplishes through that sacrifice.
Today, in the days after seeing the movie for the first time, I still have no idea.
I’m going to see Rogue One again, and soon. Maybe I’ll like it more. Perhaps I got it all wrong. Feel free to let me know in the comments below. But right now, this is far from my favorite Star Wars film.