Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One is all business, a one-offer relying solely on the function of fulfilling a paragraph in the original Star Wars (1977) title crawl which had only been thought of at the time as nothing more than an afterthought. If your familiar with the original’s crawl then you already know the outcome of Rogue One’s final mission: “During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR”. Rogue One, however, offers a little more in the way of indulging that premise alone. It gives us a ragtag group of cutthroats, defectors, expatriates and other space outcasts and piles them onto the cluster that is the Star Wars expanded universe in hopes that—within this vast array of mythology and intergalactic pulp—this minor footnote in Star Wars’ history will endear us to its characters the way the original trilogy has. Unfortunately, Edwards is not the visionary Lucas was, nor does he bear any of the grandiose pageantry that made the original Star Wars look and feel so impassioned.
Of course, Rogue One is a different vision altogether. Gareth’s worlds are dingy and dull (but far from boring)—his cyberpunk-inspired streets are like urban circuits, desert planets are like sandy dust-coats and his rebel bases are dimly lit factory havens. Unlike The Force Awakens Edwards seems to be interested in the more visualized diversity of Star Wars universe, allowing his characters to interact with environments in ways that allow us to see (and almost reach out and touch) every bit of imagery on the screen. Characters are drenched and bloodied after a shootout on a rainy planet and for the first time he gives the impression that the Star Wars universe is tangible. Unfortunately, this more ‘realistic’ approach seems to lack the foolhardy and lovably naïve ambition that makes Star Wars, well, Star Wars. Edwards’ Rogue One may appear gritty, raw and physical but not a single moment bears the hypnotic empathy of the binary sunset, or the bodacious—borderline Shakespearean—tragedy of Han Solo’s carbonation. Even Revenge of the Sith, for all its messy hubris, created stronger, more-long lasting moments.
Rogue One is mostly sparing and on-the-nose, in that sense it’s reliable but don’t expect it to surprise you in any meaningful way.
The film’s two biggest highlights are Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe, a blind staff-wielding wushu warrior with an almost fanatical devotion to the Force, and Alan Tudyk as a reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid who, equipped with a new autonomous identity, spits in the face of earnestness, ranking himself as a friend and a partner among his comrades before acting as a tool for their missions. Felicity Jones seems to exude the industrial-strength of a movie star, going above and beyond her less vividly-defined script. This is a problem that plagues the majority of the film’s talented cast in spite of their memorable likenesses in the film. Ben Mendelsohn stars as Rogue One’s villain Orson Krennic, who is so sedentary throughout the story his character had every reason to be instantly forgettable (and Mendelsohn wouldn’t have been the one to blame). Krennic, however, always draped in white, looks interesting—holding the veneer of a futuristic Roman senator—and Mendelsohn plays the role with an awkward authority that gave his brand of villainy a human touch reminiscent of Laurence Olivier’s Crassus in Spartacus (1960).
Edwards, unfortunately, isn’t Joss Whedon—whose ability to make characters pop off the screen relied on more than just capable actors. A lot of Rogue One’s most critical errors simply came with its overuse of expository dialogue. Backstories are always told, sometime in ridiculously boring detail (hearing a character describe to another character something they both know slowly becomes an agonizing trend). The actors’ oral delivery of these histories and backstories can certainly feel authentic, but they do little to give personal relationships any real clout or gravity. Just as it was with Godzilla (2014) Gareth Edwards can’t quite touch on the human component of his film, nor match the visual thrills with the emotional one.
Even as a thrifty footnote in the Star Wars saga does Rogue One manages to overcome being pigeonholed as the savory appetizer in Disney’s creative overhaul of the rejuvenated franchise. Rogue One’s characters, despite being creatively stunted by an uninspired screenplay, feel more autonomous and memorable than the characters in Force Awakens. Most of the film’s strengths come from its production quality and its actors Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed and Jiang Wen (particularly how he plays off Donnie Yen). And it’s final 30 minutes, minus its dubious and questionably grimmer choices in the last 4 minutes, are some of the most exhilarating of all the Star Wars films. It’s use of nostalgia and fan-service don’t feel as plodding or mechanical as Abrams, despite at times feeling needlessly noninclusive to those not already acquainted to the Star Wars expanded universe. Rogue One is easily the busiest and most self-contained Star Wars film. It’s safe and unambitious, easy to like and hard to love.
Though it never promises to stand-out from the inevitable cluster of Star Wars films to come there’s a verve to Edwards’ attempt at a realer, more audaciously vicious Star Wars which makes Rogue One‘s low-profile straightforwardness somewhat necessary among the hulking trilogies and never-ending canons.