A null result doesn’t mean a failed experiment
I came into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story already a little bit salty. A child of the ‘90s, I have bitterly complained that I already knew the story of stealing the Death Star plans. In fact, I did it – I played that video game and the several that came after it, embodying the mercenary-cum-Rebel-hero Kyle Katarn, working with his partner Jan Ors to get the schematics to the Rebellion and then disrupt the Dark Trooper project. The game was Dark Forces, and I loved it and its sequels.
Fast forward nineteen years, and Rogue One is announced. In the two interceding years between announcement and release, I grudgingly came to grips with the fact that we weren’t getting Star Wars: The Movie of the Thing You Loved as a Kid. On paper, it seemed like we were getting something even better: a bold experiment in Star Wars filmmaking. Not a swashbuckling adventure serial, but a proof-of-concept to see if the Star Wars universe could support a more mature storytelling style. Could Star Wars, as a franchise, survive in a different genre? Was the sweeping space opera the only way to tell those stories, or could other genres thrive in the framework of that universe, the way Captain America: The First Avenger and its follow-up The Winter Soldier proved that you could do a bombastic war story or an espionage thriller in the framework of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
I’m not going to bury the lead. I don’t think that Rogue One proves or disproves the thesis.
I’m not going to bury the lead. I don’t think that Rogue One proves or disproves the thesis. It doesn’t quite show that Star Wars is well-suited to a radically different genre of movie, but it also doesn’t quite show that it’s not. What it does show is that there is a right way to flesh out the Star Wars universe and a wrong way, and Rogue One finds the wrong way with both hands.
It has to be said that there is an awful lot about Rogue One that is very competently done. I have no real complaint about the performances, nor about the incredible production design. I don’t have the qualms that some other reviewers seem to have about the visual effects. I don’t dislike Michael Giacchino’s score, although I find it somewhat forgettable (this may speak more to a general trend in the industry more than his work on this film in particular, though). The battle scenes are furious and well-choreographed, the action often brutal, the timing excellent. The production design takes the late-70s used future aesthetic and refines it to a razor point. I’d go so far as to say that it succeeds in being Star Wars in design far more than The Force Awakens: director Gareth Edwards clearly understands the sense of scale and verticality needed to make the sets and locations feel right. I was immediately and satisfyingly transported to a galaxy far, far away. But the look and feel was where the Star Wars stopped for me.
It’s very simple: Star Wars has stakes. Since the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope, anything and everything was on the table. Empire cemented it with its now-legendary “dark middle chapter” and infamously down ending. And The Force Awakens ended with Han Solo dead and, in a bigger surprise for me, Finn down for the count after a brutal lightsabering from Kylo Ren. These were real stakes for characters who you spent entire films getting to know and like. From the first scene, Rogue One throws so many planets, characters, moments, and plot points at you that very little sticks.
It’s all fine – the characters are unique and interesting – but they are either so morally gray (Diego Luna’s Cassian, for one, is introduced by murdering an informant) or so vaguely characterized (Galen Erso, a frustratingly underused Mads Mikkelsen) or given so little meaningful screen time (Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus, whose name I would never have known if not for IMDB) that I had a hard time really feeling for any of them. Without a whole lot of time to establish character motivation, we get talked at from one scene to the next, with characters tossing off complex motivations in single lines of dialogue between tensely-staged guerilla fighting.
Felicity Jones does fine as Jyn Erso, and I appreciated the themes that Jyn and Cassian explored together: what does it mean to truly believe in a cause, and what actions, what sacrifices, are justified in the face of evil? However, she’s given little to do in the movie other than glower and capably move from action setpiece to action setpiece, and insofar as her backstory, we’ve heard it a million times before.
The movie also introduces Director Krennick, played by Ben Mendelsohn, and his Death Troopers. Krennick gets the rug pulled out from under him by Grand Moff Tarkin (a masterful but still ever-so-slightly uncanny digital recreation of Peter Cushing), gets scolded by Darth Vader, and then dies. He accomplishes little and his presence in the story is wiped out by the end. His menacing Death Troopers, the all-black Stormtroopers who featured in the trailers, shoot some people and then all die. This is a bit of a trope in the movie.
We know what the stakes are from the outset – with the unfortunate twist of the fact that we also know the outcome. Leia and Artoo will have the plans safely aboard the Tantive IV by the time this all shakes out. The question then becomes, what of our heroes? What’s their story in the context of the Galactic Civil War?
Spoiler alert, just in case I didn’t make it clear enough. Everybody dies. Everybody. They’re all dead by the end of it. But every one of those deaths is robbed of significance by the fact that we know it all works out in Episode IV. It doesn’t make Donny Yen’s portrayal of Chirrut’s sacrifice any less noble (although it does make it predictable). It does, however, make Jyn and Cassian’s deaths feel obvious and inevitable, when everyone else on screen has already died quickly and brutally. And as my nine-year-old said: “Well, I guess that’s why we don’t see them in the other movies.” That’s not the only consequence, though.
The Star Wars franchise, like Star Trek, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and other franchises with massive paracosmic worlds, succeeds best when enough of the universe is shown to nod towards a much larger universe. Where it fails is when all of the dots are connected, when all the gaps are filled in. Rogue One fills in a gap that never needed to be filled in, and in nodding to the original trilogy and the prequels at every turn, makes the galactic setting of those events feel smaller.
This is why the death of all the Rogues was the wrong choice for this movie, and it demonstrates how to make a Star Wars side story fall flat. It fails to open up the universe. It introduces new and interesting planets, only to decimate them. It revisits locations from the other movies, showing little more. It suggests conflicts within the Rebellion, only to erase them. And it creates a team of fascinating characters, gives them no room to breathe, and then destroys them, one after the other, in rapid succession. We’ve succeeded in posing a couple of questions about the nature of rebellion and the human cost of freedom, but the core question is answered firmly. Is this how Star Wars side stories should be told?
I think that the answer is clear. Rogue One is a beautiful, tense, breathless sprint from infinite possibility to status quo. If other Star Wars Stories are to succeed, they will need to blaze their own trail far more than this one did. They will need stakes of their own, characters whose stories have promise beyond the demands of the single script, and visions that open up that galaxy far, far away, rather than just turning over stones on the same path we’ve travelled before.