Catching Up: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Felicity Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Mad Mikkelson, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed, Forrest Whitaker, voice work by Alan Tudyk and James Earl Jones
Although the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” appear in blue text at the start of Rogue One, the words “Star Wars” don’t explode onto the screen during the intro as they have done at the start of the previous films. That’s because in terms of tone and look, Rogue One feels completely different from the other films in the franchise. It’s a lot grimier and grittier than the previous entries, and while there are the requisite space battles and laser gun shoot-outs, it’s also curiously joyless.
While the last film, The Force Awakens, may have shared more than a few narrative similarities with A New Hope, it was still an exhilarating space opera with a number of likable new characters (and some very likable old ones as well), terrific action scenes, and a villain who was, if not quite as menacing as Darth Vader, still pretty damn threatening. And while it too was darker than some of the previous entries, it still stayed true to the spirit of the franchise to which it was apart.
The problem with Rogue One isn’t that it feels different from the other films, but rather the movie as a whole feels unnecessary. The purpose here is to answer a question about A New Hope that I’m not entirely sure too many people had, and to do so in a less than compelling manner. That the movie is as dark as it is should be expected, given that the story here is headed for a doomed conclusion (for the main characters, anyway). Yet because the characters here are too flimsy to even be considered one-dimensional, there’s very little to sustain one’s interest to the story’s bleak end.
This is especially true of the film’s leading lady, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who may be the daughter of the conflicted creator of the original Death Star, but is otherwise a bland and one-note figure. The movie opens with Jyn as a child, as she witnesses imperial weapons baddie Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) murder her mother and kidnap her scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelson) so he can finish his work on the Death Star. She hides out inside a cave near her home, and is soon rescued by rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker).
Years later, Jyn is a lone survivalist who winds up joining the Rebel Alliance after Gerrara shows her a holographic message from her father pointing out a design flaw that he’s embedded in the Death Star. In order to obtain the blue print for the infamous “planet killer,” the Alliance will have to break into the weapon’s archive located on a posh beach planet. Because leaders of the Alliance believe it to be a suicide mission, Jyn teams up with five others – undercover agent Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind former Jedi; Imwe’s protector Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a character so forgettable that I had to go to IMDB to remember his name; imperial pilot turned rebel Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a smart-alecky android – to do the job themselves.
Had the screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy invested any energy into fleshing out the characters into people we could, if not care about, then at least take interest in, then the final battle sequence and its tragic outcome might have had more of an impact. As written, though, the heroes in Rogue One are a forgettable and boring group. Once the movie establishes their one traits (Chirrut is blind; Baze doesn’t believe in the Force; Bodhi is very nervous; K-2SO is a smartass; and Cassian is so committed to the cause that he’ll have no qualms about shooting an informant in the back), the character development ends. These aren’t characters; they’re pawns in a flimsy and unnecessary story.
The Jyn character is especially disappointing, given how compelling and entertaining Daisy Ridley’s Rey was in The Force Awakens. Jones, a very good actress, doesn’t inject Jyn with much personality. In fact, with the exception being the instances where she is made to cry, she seldom shows any emotion at all. There is nothing charming, charismatic, or compelling about the character in the first place, so maybe Jones’ wooden performance is due to the very poor way in which her character is written.
The villains are really no better, which is saying something since two iconic characters appear in the film. Mendelsohn fails to inject his character with any sort of menace, and while Darth Vader shows up for a couple of very brief scenes (with James Earl Jones once again providing the voice work), the movie doesn’t do anything with the character, and gives him a pun that is easily the worst line in the film. Grand Moff Tarkin reappears, and while actor Guy Henry is cast in the role, director Gareth Edwards makes the colossally bad decision of digitally inserting the late Peter Cushing’s face on Henry’s body. The result is not only obvious and phony, but also a mite off-putting and creepy (it’s even more so when he does the same thing with Carrie Fisher’s Leia near the very end).
Visually speaking, the movie is not that impressive. While the production design by Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont, set decoration by Lee Sandales, and art direction (credited to 12 different people) are certainly creative, they’re almost rendered moot by the grimy cinematography, courtesy of the not-untalented Greg Fraser (yes, he also lensed the ugly Snow White and the Huntsman, but he also did work on the visually stunning Killing Them Softly and Zero Dark Thirty). Many of the images here have such a dark and shadowy look (even during scenes which take place in broad daylight) that I had to struggle for much of the movie to see what was happening on the screen. At first, I thought the movie's projector was somehow malfunctioning, until two things occurred: 1) the climactic battle on the beach planet was bright and crisp all of a sudden, and 2) my younger brother, who saw this movie in a different state, had the exact same complaint. This is not a movie that I enjoyed looking at.
In fact, there’s very little about this movie that I actually enjoyed. The characters are dull, the action scenes feel generic, and the story here is protracted and dispensable. There are a few chuckle worthy moments in this dreary film, one of the best is delivered by Donnie Yen, but most of them belonging K-2SO. In fact, the android is perhaps the only memorable character in the entire film, but even he grows annoying as the film plods on.
The movie is directed by Gareth Edwards, whose work on the Godzilla mythology back in 2014 resulted in a fairly decent one-timer. His work on the Star Wars mythology, however, doesn’t even deserve that faint praise. The most shocking aspect about the film isn’t what happened during it, but rather what happened after it ended and people started leaving the theater. I seriously heard one gentleman say to his friend on the walk out, “That was way better than the last one they made,” and looking up other reviewers online, I’ve discovered that many people feel the same way. Agree to disagree.
Rated PG-13 for lots of action and violence
Final Grade: * ½ (out of ****)