Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is very much just that: a story set in the Star Wars universe. It’s a spin-off, directed by Gareth Edwards and starring Felicity Jones, Rogue One is about a group of rebels who steal the plans for the Death Star. That’s it. Seems straightforward enough, and it mostly is, but as I sat and watched the film, I realized more and more how unnecessary it was. I didn’t need to see how the Death Star plans got shared; I didn’t have to know who the people who got the plans were. But I could have cared and could have found it worthwhile had the film given me a reason to. As it stands, Rogue One doesn’t really justify its existence well enough and ends up being a bland sci-fi action film that just so happens to be set in the Star Wars universe.
It starts with the characters: Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is our protagonist and she never makes an impression. She’s the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the man who helped make the Death Star, and he has a failsafe in place to blow it up. This info is transported by a former Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) who takes it to a guy (Forest Whitaker) who took care of Jyn as a child, before unwillingly abandoning her. They meet, she gets the message, she’s the only person who actually sees the message and knows about the plans, and then her and the rest of the rag tag team of rebels get out of there before the Space Nazis destroy everything. Throughout this film, Jyn is mostly expressionless and barely a character, even when she does seem to be shedding some tears at certain “emotional” moments. Even by the end, whatever feelings or empathy we as an audience should have aren’t there because she never shows enough emotion or empathy to make us care. And she’s the main character!
So what about that “rag tag team” I aforementioned? Well, it consists of a man with a funny accent named Cassian (Diego Luna), the defector pilot (who’s so forgettable that this’ll be the last time he’s mentioned), a blind warrior named Chirrut (Donnie Yen), his best friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and a robot with more personality than any of the characters I just mentioned (Alan Tudyk). The man with the funny accent is pretty bland himself, maybe even more so than Jyn; I forgot he was even a character once the movie ended. Yen’s Chirrut is actually pretty cool, being a spiritual center for the team, as he basically acts like a monk and fights with a stick (for only one scene, unfortunately). Wen’s Baze isn’t big on the spiritual stuff and he carries a big gun; he too is an amusing character and I liked the way both he and Yen played off each other.
Then there’s the robot, K-2SO, who’s clearly the best character in this team of rebels. He’s got charm, personality, and funny moments, though I don’t think all his quips are funny and sometimes he says or does something that’s more cringe inducing than laugh inducing. Still, he’s a good character and I almost always enjoyed him when he was onscreen. He even shows a bit of depth at times, and his death scene, in particular, I think is well done and fairly effective.
Speaking of death, the death scenes for almost all the main characters end up being mostly well done. I found the death scene for Chirrut and Baze to be one of the best scenes in the movie; they may not have had much depth as characters, but I still liked them enough to find the moment sad. And the scene of Cassian and Jyn’s death is also visually well done, though I found it emotionally lacking.
Which brings me to a character who I actually was invested in, a character I actually enjoyed seeing each and every time he was on screen. That’s Ben Mendelsohn’s character Orson Krennic. He makes every single scene he’s in count, whether he’s trying to intimidate someone, speaking to higher ups, or getting outraged. His performance and character kept me engaged, much the same way previous Star Wars villains have.
And speaking of previous Star Wars villains, Grand Moff Tarkin shows up as an actual character, sporting a computer-generated face and head that looks fantastic for one second and terribly stilted and artificial for ten. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have just used an actor who almost looks like Peter Cushing instead, but I was impressed enough with the technology being used that I was more fascinated than distracted.
Speaking of distractions, this film has a lot of fan service, which makes it feel sort of disingenuous as a result. A nod or reference to some of the previous films is okay, but an out-of-place and out-of-nowhere five-second cameo by R2-D2 and C-3PO isn’t charming or amusing, it’s distracting. They have nothing to do with this film’s main plot, yet they randomly show up for a few seconds just because. It was around this time that I became disengaged with and thrown out of the movie, even as the film’s final act was underway.
While this final act contains a great Darth Vader moment, it should have been the only Darth Vader moment. Other than trying to get the plans at the film’s end, Vader has no reason to show up at any point during the film. Krennic does go to visit him at one point, but the entire scene is more unnecessarily awkward than anything else. His voice sounds weird and his costume looks fake, none of which is a problem during Vader’s final scene where he plows through rebel soldiers in an effort to get the stolen plans.
While most of the film’s problems are story based, it does have a few other issues. The film’s cinematography isn’t very good, resulting in a usually bland look that is never complimented by the action or visuals. This also extends to the film’s use of anamorphic widescreen, which is almost completely underutilized, to the point where I felt as if the film should have used a different aspect ratio. One of the very few shots in the film I actually love is when the Death Star’s ray is being tested on a city, showing Krennic and others viewing a glowing explosion. Another scene I love is a quick one where we see soldiers on the ground as they approach the enemy. This few-seconds shot in particular made me wish this was more of a war film, one where we really focus on the soldiers on the ground.
Not to say Rogue One isn’t a war film, or doesn’t have war film elements, but that leads me into what is probably the film’s biggest problem: It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It isn’t a traditional numbered Star Wars film (the lack of an opening crawl makes that perfectly clear), but it isn’t as unique or different as it thinks. It tries to be its own sort of darker, grittier, less-saturated-colors story that just so happens to take place in the Star Wars universe, but because it does take place in that universe, it never goes all the way with it. It flirts with grit when our heroes are fighting Imperial troops in different locations, but throws random fan service and space battles that leer it towards more familiar Star Wars trappings. And what we’re left with is a sometimes boring, sometimes amusing sci-fi action film that proves that the story of a group of rebels getting the Death Star plans didn’t need to be told. If this film wasn’t about or related to Star Wars, I’d be much more forgiving of it’s shortcomings and think it’s a cool idea. But it isn’t that: It’s a Star Wars spin-off, and as far Star Wars stories go, this one’s just okay.