I did this same sort of recap last year for The Force Awakens and figured I should just go ahead and do it again for Rogue One. Even though I am a book person and have read a lot of Star Wars books, I have read basically none of the novels set during the time of the movies. Still some caveats apply: I have read few reviews and almost none of the background on the reshoots, so it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. Similarly, I these are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had. Overall: I enjoyed the experience of watching the film a great deal, but only if I didn’t think about it too much.
Fair warning: the rest of this post will contain spoilers for the movie, at least such that they exist. Anyone familiar with Star Wars is familiar with the ending writ large.
- First things first, the glaring issue of uncanny valley in CGI people. there are a handful of characters in the film who appear predominantly through the magic of CGI. Most prominent among these is Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, but, so, too, is the youthful Princess Leia. Necessary though these scenes might have been, at least the way that the film was plotted, the CGI people were the worst part of the film and particularly did a disservice to some of the amazing actors who were in the original films.
Speaking of Peter Cushing, I once again had a problem with the villains of the new Star Wars films. The original trilogy has iconic villains, particularly in the form of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, but also in Grand Moff Tarkin, whose power is established by his control over someone like Vader. The trilogy also ramps up the villains, starting off with Tarkin, then bringing Vader to the fore while hinting at someone even worse behind him, then finally facing down the emperor. Other than Vader’s salvation, the movies didn’t really bother giving the bad guys character arcs. There is something of a binary between good and evil, but the ongoing story emerges primarily from the overcoming of ever more difficult adversaries. This dearth of quality villains is one of the problems with the prequels since they were fundamentally the origin story for the villains of the original trilogy, rather than developing iconic villains in their own right. The movies tried, but the audience already knew that Palpatine was the real villain. The Force Awakens didn’t have the same problem, but, in my opinion, created villains who were an echo of the original villains because the whole film was an echo of the original trilogy. Rogue One went back to the problems of the prequels.
There were functionally three villains in Rogue One, Tarkin, Vader, and Orson Krinnic. The first two villains are known quantities, though Tarkin was the unsettling CGI and Vader’s costume looked cheap and strange in the sharp modern visuals; the third villain was so utterly forgettable that I had to look up his name just now. Krinnic is set up as the villain of the film in that he commits heinous actions that directly affect the heroes (see below), but it also gives him a character arc that shows him to be a small-minded and petty, if ambitious, Imperial officer. His villainy is small an mundane, which is an approach that can be incredibly powerful, but since that wasn’t the point of the film, he was just forgettable.
- I liked the heroes. I liked Jyn, Cassian, and the rest of the crew, if not always the surrounding characters (including that of Forest Whitaker). I also liked the arc of Galen Urso, Jyn’s father, betraying the empire from within even though his story is given precious little weight and only exists to justify the flaw in the Death Star. I largely agreed that the film would have been better off including more female characters than just Jyn, but at least she was a really good character. The rest of the core group of heroes was satisfactory, though I do think the filmmakers tried for emotional beats that they did not always actually earn. The characters worked, but I think that they as a team would have worked better as a subtler heist film, speaking of…
- I was led to believe that Rogue One was primarily a heist film, and scenes of assembling the team were structured as such, but then things got muddy. One of the few postmortems I saw praised Rogue One for being a good war film (I disagree), and there seemed to be a tension between whether it was a heist first or a war film first. Yes, the plot involves the theft of the Death Star plans and there is a brief infiltration scene, but Rogue One was barely more a heist film than the original Star Wars. I would have preferred a heist. Layered on top of the heist plot are a series of action scenes shot in such a way to induce the emotions of tragic loss, all of which I found to be heavy handed.
- Rogue One was once again layered with Easter Eggs from the original trilogy. For instance, there is a passing encounter with Ponda Baba and Dr. Cornelius Evazan (the criminals who try to kill Luke in the Mos Eisly cantina) and reference to Captain Antilles, but the big one is the reveal of young Princess Leia near the very end of the film. I liked the first ones just fine, but not so much the last one. In part my problem was that Rogue One tried to too seamlessly connect it with the main trilogy, so it leaves off almost exactly where Episode IV starts up. However, this opened up new problems such as “why is Princess Leia, a senator, on this desperate war fleet?” I understand why Leia wasn’t in earlier scenes (one can only go so far with CGI), but I would have preferred the edges to be a little more ragged. We know that they are stealing the Death Star plans and that should be enough to situate the film, we shouldn’t also need it to be a direct prequel.
- I like that the newer Star Wars films avoid limiting themselves to the worlds already created because it gives the filmmakers an opportunity to play with the diversity of the Star Wars universe. I don’t love that they’ve abandoned a lot of the worlds created by the authors, but the universe is big enough that it isn’t too much of a problem. However, around the midpoint of the movie, I found myself asking how the movie would have been different had they been forced to limit themselves to a single world. I think that the story would have still held together alright, but also don’t think that scattering the story across multiple worlds actually added anything, either.
- Lastly, a picayune complaint that, I think, speaks to a broader issue with the film. I have been a sucker for star fighter combat in all its iterations throughout both book and movie versions of the franchise. Rogue One follows the original trilogy in terms of dialogue and shots, with one crucial difference. The original trilogy places characters with which the audience has an emotional investment in the cockpit and then does at least token work to give investment with some of other pilots. Rogue One does none of this. The actions of the pilots are important to the film, but the way that those scenes are shot are oddly dissonant given that none of the pilots themselves are at all important to the story.
Since I cared enough about this film to write 1300 words about it, I am certainly still on the Star Wars bandwagon. The films are still entertaining, but two consecutive films have been little more than that and I am starting to think that this is about the best that can be expected. With all that down, I am ready to read other takes on Star Wars.