It’s easy to enjoy a Star Wars film just because it’s a Star Wars film. You could gleefully watch paint dry so long as the camera pans back from the wall to John Williams’ score, an AT-AT walker’s legs trampling in front of it as a Stormtrooper complains to another on his rotation about the state of the Imperial canteen food. There’s a comfort in being in the Star Wars Universe and you immediately feel a renewed affection for it upon re-entry.
But a Star Wars film shouldn’t rely on its Star Wars-yness. It was permissible for Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the goal of which was chiefly to announce “we’re back!”, but Rogue One - the franchise’s first standalone film - had an opportunity to be different. Here was a prequel not constrained by cliffhangers (we all knew roughly how it had to end), not required to follow the tone of the main films and not mandatorily ‘fun for all the family’. It could have been anything, and not just the ‘more gritty’ or ‘more comedic’ binary options so often thrust upon sci-fi adventures, though being pushed and pulled between the two of these is unfortunately where it ended up.
Without giving anything away, the first two-thirds of the film centre around a precocious, bedraggled young protagonist with parental estrangement issues learning about the Rebel Alliance and aided by an unwittingly wise-cracking droid. Sound familiar? It’s the Star Wars setup we’ve seen four times now (Anakin, Luke, Rey...), except Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the least interesting so far, a petty criminal who doesn’t really have a stake in the war with the Imperials, so much so that when she suddenly decides it’s her life’s calling you don’t really buy it. The droid, K-2SO, was rumoured to be hilarious, but ultimately turns out to be a tepid version of Interstellar’s TARS robot, whom it could probably open a stand-up comedy night for to polite applause.
Ben Mendelsohn plays latest villain Director Orson Krennic, who was a very exciting proposition in the trailers thanks to a very cool aesthetic, but ultimately just barks in a dry English accent like a thousand Imperial commanders before him - a forgettable antagonist who you don’t even particularly crave bad things to happen to, like you ought to for any good villain. He gets an assist from Darth Vader, who will thrill the eight-year-old in you but is over-stylised here, has scenes seemingly just for the sake of it, and who is let down by some cringey dialogue (at one point he utters a parting pun that even James Bond would think better of).
Fortunately, the secondary characters are a little more compelling. Jyn’s shotgun blaster-toting mercenary Baze Malbus and blind Jedi Chirrut Imwe being good fun, and deuteragonist Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) for the first time pulls at the intriguing plot thread of the Rebels as a flawed faction who are also guilty of acts of terrorism and being overly militant. Unfortunately, this angle isn’t really explored. Forest Whitaker, meanwhile, does a fantastic job with what little dialogue he has in the role of resistance fighter and mentor to Jyn, Saw Gerrera.
The first hour or so of the film goes through the motions somewhat, looking consistently spectacular but failing to really draw you into the narrative and suffering from very clunky dialogue. Luckily, the heist for the Death Star plans it all builds too is indeed thrilling, director Gareth Edwards colliding his galactic toys in pretty breathtaking fashion. The Rebel assault climax is actually probably better than The Force Awakens’ denouement; I only wish it had stuck with a stealth approach for a little longer before devolving into the usual cacophony of laser blasters and Stormtroopers being thrown into the air by explosions.
I feel like somewhere in this tonally uneven movie Edwards had a clear vision for it, but then Disney stepped in (there were many rumours of many rewrites and reshoots). Rogue One self-consciously throws in a gag when it feels like it’s being too serious, and has its characters permanently blasted by rain and dust as a shortcut to an aforementioned grittier feel. It is full to the brim with Easter eggs, for fans who enjoy consuming cinema like a Wikipedia page, and the surprise return of a few familiar faces (admittedly the best VFX I have ever seen for replicas of humans) serve little purpose other than to make you go: “Cool! I remember them!”
Don’t get me wrong, it’s all entertaining enough, but I sincerely hope the talented directors the Star Wars franchise has lined up for its next instalments are given room to really add to the saga rather than just repeatedly force-feed us what we already love about it.
When you go and see Rogue One - and I sincerely hope you do enjoy it - ask yourself this: if the Star Wars branding was stripped away and it was a brand new sci-fi action adventure, would it really leave a mark?
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