Though a colossal box office hit, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is bad Star Wars.
It’s a fail in so many ways, and I’m glad Disney has had the good sense to stop with the spin-off, standalone “stories” (in much the same way it has apparently decided to stop with the canonical Episodes). In five short (or long) years, Disney has gone way, way overboard with Star Wars, putting out no fewer than five movies since 2015 — two of which were Rogue One and Solo. I’m willing to accept Episodes Seven through Nine as essential viewing, but the standalone movies? Not so much.
Much better, so far is the standalone Star Wars series The Mandalorian on Disney-Plus. It at least has the true spirit of the first Star Wars movie, which was, at its heart, a Western. (Before I go any further in praising Disney product — yes, I know that Star Wars, Marvel, et al, are all mere titles on the menu of a corporate switchboard. Yes, I know we are all sheep. If I could live in a better world, I would.) The Mandalorian takes its time telling short, simple, straightforward stories that do a good job of expanding George Lucas’ original vision in an interesting way. I would, I admit, like to see the title character’s face, just to establish more of a human connection, but thus far the series gets a thumbs up.
Not so Rogue One, which has troubled me for a long time. The biggest problem I have is that it is just plain unnecessary — perhaps not more unnecessary than Solo, but still. Rogue One is the ultimate form of needless exposition, covering ground that was better left suggested in the opening crawl of A New Hope. As everyone no doubt knows (see what I mean?), Rogue One tells the story of the band of Rebels who stole the secret plans to the Death Star, setting up the entire plot of Episode IV. The only thing Rogue One adds to the canon is the explanation of the placement of the secret weakness that Luke Skywalker manages to use to blow up said Death Star in A New Hope. That’s it.
Watching the movie again recently on Plus, I realized the central problem with Rogue One: It’s boring. Yes, there are interesting visual effects, aliens, planets and, especially, space battles. (The climactic starship battle between the Empire and the Rebellion prefigures the one at the end of Episode IV, and I have to admit, it’s exciting and well done.) But the story is a complete waste of time. From the standpoint of characterization and narrative, Rogue One is an utter wash.
I defy you to come up with the name of one single character in Rogue One, and I mean someone other than Darth Vader (who makes a scary if uncharacteristically Freddie Krueger-ish appearance at the end). Hell, I can’t even remember the name of the good-guy Imperial battle droid whose sarcastic one-liners get a few laughs, much less the names of the human team members whose job is to steal the plans, etc. The movie doesn’t have time to give them personalities beyond the task at hand. There’s not a Han Solo or a Luke Skywalker or a C-3PO in the bunch — there can’t be, because by definition, this movie does not deal with any of those characters. That leaves a bunch of empty roles and a lot of time to fill.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, the movie is darker than we’ve come to expect from Star Wars, and I mean visually darker — it’s as if Edwards doesn’t really want you to be able to see very clearly the action on the screen. It’s a glum, joyless, violent universe filled with unlikable characters who aren’t even given the chance to be liked. This doesn’t even feel like Star Wars. It does, however, feel like fan fiction, which is essentially what Disney has been putting out since 2015. Like the Prequels or not, at least they were from the mind of George Lucas — they represented his vision, and he spent his money (as well as his reputation) producing them. Disney has decided to go its own direction with Star Wars, handing the bulk of the vision off to fairly independent-minded creators like Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams. But Rogue One is a bridge too far.
I like messing with Star Wars tropes and seeing the story expand in new and exciting ways; I thought The Last Jedi was the best film of 2017 and certainly one of the best Star Wars movies, precisely because it messes with our expectations. I liked the twist with Luke Skywalker and thought that “old-guy” Luke was a natural extension of the character — the tired old Jedi going away and reconsidering his life, far from the heat of battle. (Plus, Mark Hamill gave an excellent performance.)
That doesn’t mean Rogue One gets a pass for explaining to me how the Death Star plans got stolen, and how the Rebels who did the job all got killed for their effort. This is a depressing story, filled with questionable scenarios and predictable, cliched direction. One major sequence, for example, has the characters all standing around in the rain, getting soaked, and in total darkness. Another, involving a gun battle between various (confusing) factions, is rendered silly by the good guys literally clubbing armored stormtroopers to death with batons. What? The stormtroopers can’t shoot these guys? Is this any way to run an Empire, with such bad shots and weak-ass armor? When you start asking these kinds of questions, the filmmaking is not doing its job.
Then we have the digital resurrection of poor Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, overseer of the Death Star. This is a true WTF decision. Why not have another actor play Tarkin? It’s creepy seeing a CGI Cushing, not to mention completely unnecessary. Do I even need to mention the terrible CGI Carrie Fisher in the final shot? Couldn’t Edwards, et al, have found a different way of putting across the same concluding line?
I dunno …. there are certain things to admire about the movie, but they all have to do with art direction and production design. I like the way the ships at the end all look like highly-detailed models instead of CGI … but the movie shoots itself in the foot by giving us human characters (based on deceased actors) who are nothing but CGI. Is this some kind of weird reaction to the all-CGI production of Lucas’ Prequels? Pretty misguided, if you ask me. Nothing in any of the Prequels seems as wrong as the digital recreation of a dead British actor playing a character who was minor in his own movie.
I liked the visualization of Vader’s castle, and yeah, the death scenes of the heroes are fairly compelling. But so what? Rogue One made a lot of money, but it also feels a little like overkill. (Solo didn’t help matters.) I think additional Star Wars stories are fine for the small screen, which is why I approve of The Mandalorian, but I’m glad to see Disney putting the brakes on this franchise.