SPOILER WARNING! Significant plot spoilers ahead – though we all know how it ends already.
It’s a WHOLE NEW Star Wars story! Get hype!
Except… well, it takes place right between two existing films. And it directly leads into a story we already know. So it’s half new at best. And it’s these kind of mediocrities that plague Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
But let’s start with the good stuff (and there’s a lot of it!).
This is the prequel most Star Wars fans have been waiting for. I sat in the cinema, nose almost pressed against the screen due to overbooking, and I could feel palpable tension as people waited for things to kick off. From the very opening shots, prefaced by the iconic ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’, the theatre was overcome with a deafening silence. And the tension never dropped. Everyone left the screen satisfied they’d seen a film that didn’t feature Hayden Christensen, never mentioned midichlorians, and just generally avoiding trampling on the world built in the original trilogy.
As a testament to the film, even people who weren’t Star Wars fans came out happy. It’s an entertaining, well-made action romp from start to finish. Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO was an instant hit, bringing the familiar ‘hilarious droid’ laughs alongside the grittier presence of Felicity Jones and Diego Luna. Their angsty Rebellion-force performances were convincing, nuanced, and reassuringly predictable. Visually, it was engaging and considered. New planets like the tropical beaches of Scarif brought a setting that defies the conventional desert aesthetic, while pre-existing locations were given a new lick of CGI paint. It was an action film you could trust to deliver.
But this is ultimately what let Rogue One down and might explain the increased criticism it’s received over time – it was safe. It’s a tall order to make a film intriguing and unpredictable when (most) all the audience know the end. When all your characters are fated to succeed but also die, a certain amount of tension is lost. You can dress it with stunning visuals, epic battles, and well-placed Vader cameos, but it’s not going to amend that fundamental flaw. I enjoyed myself throughout. But I didn’t get emotional about any single character’s end. The only moment that vaguely got to me was the death of K-2SO. The comic character sacrificing himself for the heroes is not exactly unconventional, but it spelled a sombre tonal shift in the film. When the lights in his eyes faded, his comical personality with it, it marked the end to the campy Star Wars comic relief and the beginning of a dark and inevitable finale I’d been expecting all along.
It’s really all in the third act that things start to fall apart. We all know the end underwent extensive rewrites – and quite honestly it shows. The first two acts establish an underlying tension between Jyn’s need to save her father (Mads Mikkelsen‘s Galen Erso) and the Rebellion’s desire to kill him. This is (albeit somewhat unsatisfactorily) brought to a head when Galen dies in the crossfire at Eadu. Except this tension goes nowhere. Instead the primary debate is whether or not to attack Scarif… even though everything so far went perfectly from the Rebels’ POV. We get a whole board room scene, which adds nothing except a contrived conflict that really comes from nowhere. It all feels like run-of-the-mill, underdeveloped tension to ensure the admittedly competent Braveheart-style speech can happen. Oh and to bring together a crew of unlikely heroes.
And then there’s the battle itself. Again, it’s technically sound – Michael Giacchino providing a rousing score with hints to classic Star Wars themes that carries the dramatic tension at every beat. But it’s messy. We move from one objective to another: “flick that switch”, “connect that cable”, “break that shield”, “find that file”, “position that transmitter”, “kill that bad guy”. None of them carry any weight, they aren’t set up beforehand, and they are always resolved quickly. At no point is there any real sense of jeopardy. We always know where it’s going and everything becomes slightly muted. Not bad… just muted and forgettable.
That’s ultimately what this film is: a well-made film that is largely forgettable save one key element – it’s A Star Wars StoryTM. I’m not saying it’s bad. I came out of it really liking it. But as time wore on, I found myself forgetting much of the plot in favour of moments of fan service. As much as I loved watching Vader tear up Rebel forces and finally be scary again, it promised something more. It had the potential to be a great film, there are even moments where it is truly fantastic, but it falls flat when it matters most.
For these reasons this film belongs in Movie Limbo. It tries really hard to get into Heaven but, as we all know, films either do or do not… there is no try.