In the wake of The Force Awakens I had a pretty simple wishlist for the next Star Wars movie: be original, stop exploiting nostalgia imagery, don’t rely on the the original trilogy so much, etc etc… you’ve heard all this before. The Force Awakens got us to a place where we could be excited about Star Wars again, but now we need new things to carry us forward. Rogue One is the first of those new things, and to its credit, it’s actually pretty new. It makes a genuine effort to be its own thing and rises above basically every criticism I had with The Force Awakens, but… I still like The Force Awakens better. I’m such a hypocrite.
For all its problems, The Force Awakens genuinely looked and felt like Star Wars. Rogue One merely looks like Star Wars. Though it is free of the conceptual issues that plagued its predecessor, it is bogged down by a host of its own problems that disrupt the feel of the movie. The two largest of these issues are intimately wrapped up in each other: the characters don’t work and the pacing is off.
Rogue One moves at lightspeed for the entire movie. It is aggressively fast paced to the point that almost all of our screen time is devoted to moving the plot forward. There’s not even time for an opening title crawl; we just jump right into the movie and hit the ground running. In the first act we planet hop so frequently that on screen text has to keep popping up to tell us where we are (a first for the franchise). We’re rapidly introduced to characters and factions and before we can get straight who everyone is and what they all want, they’re all already at each other’s throats. By the second act everything is in place and is much easier to understand, but the movie stays at full throttle all the way up to its abrasively sudden ending. Between the need for expository dialogue telling us just what the hell is going on, and the high frequency of action scenes, there’s almost no time left for character development.
With the exception of one standout who I’ll talk about in a moment, everyone in this movie is forgettable. Our lead, Jyn Erso is woefully underdeveloped. She has a backstory and a simple arc, but she’s little more than a vehicle for the audience to experience the story. Felicity Jones does a decent job with the material that she’s given, but in the end our lead character is just tragically mediocre.
Surrounding her are a number of forgettable sidekicks.There’s a rebel soldier dude who I suppose is the co-star of the movie. He and Jyn dislike each other for most of the movie only to inexplicably get along perfectly by the third act. Forest Whitaker is in it for awhile, but the movie pretty much squanders him. There’s also a force sensitive Asian guy with a staff and his companion, an Indian dude with a chain gun blaster. We meet them by accident and they end up joining the team for… reasons. A Middle-Eastern looking Imperial pilot defects and joins up too. Notice how this is just a dreary list of physical features? When you have to describe what a character looks like rather than who he or she is, you know you have problems. I never learned these characters names and I never cared about any of them. I’m suddenly reminded of Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi master most often remembered for his beard. At the very least all these character have memorable visual designs, but here I realized something I find absolutely hilarious.
These character designs look like they came right out of a video game – specifically a fantasy RPG. Just look at them. There’s literally a rogue, a mage, and a tank. Their personalities even fit these archtypes. Jyn, the rogue, flouts authority and engages in subterfuge and thievery (she’s trying to steal the death star plans). Staff Guy, the mage, is force sensitive and is our primary source of mysticism and intuition. And Chain Gun Guy, the tank, is a practical realist who protects Staff Guy. Makes me wonder if the screenwriter used to work at Bioware. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rogue One: A Video Game Story.
All joking aside, there is one good character in this movie: K-2SO. He’s an Imperial droid who was captured and reprogrammed by the Rebels, a process that left him with a delicious excess of charisma. He’s a sarcastic smartass who steals every scene he’s in with his hilarious quips and one-liners. I find it sublimely ironic that in a movie with the most ethnically diverse cast in its franchise’s history, a movie that is making a genuine effort to ensure there is someone for everyone to relate to, the only character I got genuinely attached to was the droid. I’m not sure if that says something about the movie, or about me…
Alright, time to address the elephant in the room: Darth Vader. Is his cameo any good? Well, yes and no. He has two scenes: a talky one where he can sound like a badass, and a fighty one where he can look like a badass. They’re both cool and they’re both pretty tangential to the plot. So while the film does benefit from Vader’s presence, it also squanders his potential.
In fact, “squandered potential” pretty much describes the movie as a whole. As the first of the stand alone Star Wars movies, Rogue One could have established a precedent for unique, universe expanding movies. Instead, it assembles a motley crew of bland characters and, sustained by its own frenzied momentum, careens towards an abrupt finale with a foreknown conclusion. Though free from the conceptual issues of The Force Awakens, it is held back by a host of its own problems that render it, not bad, but merely forgettable. Rogue One is little more than a distraction to keep us occupied while we wait for Episode VIII.