Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Running Time: 134 min.
Cast: Felicity Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Alan Tudyk (voice), Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Riz Ahmed, Jimmy Smits, Genevieve O'Reilly, Alistair Pete, James Earl Jones (voice)
Small role: Warwick Davis, Anthony Daniels
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy
Review published December 22, 2016
Rogue One is a Star Wars prequel that spins off of the line at the beginning of the original Star Wars (Episode IV) that mentions that rebel spies stole the secret plans for the Death Star. This one has no title crawl, as it isn't a part of the chapters that the Skywalker saga had been about, though it does flesh out the middle ground between Episodes III and IV.
Felicity Jones (Inferno, The Theory of Everything) stars as Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso (Mikkelsen, Doctor Strange), a scientist-turned-farmer who once reluctantly helped design the Death Star for the Empire. Jyn had run away from harm when her father had been captured, under the iron hand of the director of the massive weapon project, Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn, Slow West), who expects Galen to finish what he started. We catch up with her later, as an adult, having been trained by Saw Gerrera (Whitaker, Arrival) on the ways of the solider, then imprisoned, but Cassian Andor (Luna, Blood Father), an espionage agent working for the the Rebel Alliance, sees her potentially helping their side to find the scientist, assembling a rag-tag team of fighters to go on a mission to snatch the blueprints, including one that exploits an Achilles Heel, from the Death Star before it wreaks havoc on a terrified Rebel Alliance.
The rousing score from John Williams has been replaced by the scoring of Michael Giacchino (Star Trek Beyond, Zootopia), though the original score does return from time to time to remind us of how much more effective it is than anything new that we're hearing now. It's just one of the reasons why the first 2/3 of Rogue One fails to generate the kind of excitement that we're accustomed to seeing from the prior seven films in the main Star Wars arc. The final 45 minutes are a different story, where battles in space and on land begin to take over, upping the tempo of what has come before, and actually generating a modicum of interest in seeing the coursing battles rage across space, land and tropical islands (yes, there are major skirmishes near water in this one). It's no secret that the folks at Disney weren't exactly happy with the product that director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters) had turned in, ordering reshoots to gin up some excitement before unleashing Rogue One to the eager, ravenous fans.
On the down side of the film, in addition to the highly publicized appearance of Darth Vader, there are a couple of smaller roles within Rogue One that also feature characters in their visages of how we see them in the 1977 release. Unfortunately, these characters reside squarely in the Uncanny Valley of CGI characters, nearly perfect in their resemblance to the actual actors in their Star Wars costumes, but too obviously artificial in their facial expressions and movements to keep from becoming distractions. Didn't Disney learn their lessons on what not to do with CG representations of well-known actors from Tron Legacy? If we're going to recast younger versions of actors in other prequels and spin-offs, it makes little sense for these characters to not be portrayed by flesh-and-blood counterparts (much like Ewan McGregor represented Alec Guinness as younger Obi-Wan, or soon-to-be Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich, will be replacing Harrison Ford.)
The original Star Wars was a combination of many genre staples, from swashbucklers, to cliffhanger serials, to Japanese samurai flicks, to Westerns, all of them filtered through to extract the most exciting of aspects into one glorified space opera hybrid, applying Joseph Campbell's Heroes Journey as the template for epic storytelling. Rogue One, while passably entertaining for fans of the series, some of whom champion this film as one of the finest in the big-screen releases because of the multitudinous Easter Eggs and fan-service moments, is likely going to garner indifference from those not already part of the cult of Star Wars, and disappointment among many of those fans who prefer their Star Wars adventures to crackle with lots of kinetic energy and whiz-bang elements of discovery. As we've learned in this era of realistic visual effects smorgasbords, it takes more than explosions and well-rendered alien planets to get us to drop our jaws in wonderment.
One of the more disappointing elements is in seeing the tried-and-true Dirty Dozen formula, done to hit-and-miss success earlier this year with Suicide Squad, and last year in Guardians of the Galaxy, mostly squandered in Rogue One. While certain members of the rag-tag team have their individual moments to shine, the repartee among them as a collective feels mostly absent, only giving hints of what might have been in the interactions between Donnie Yen's (Flash Point) blind swordsman, Chirrut Imwe (the embodiment of blind faith, as he believes in the Force in an era when Jedi are merely a relic of the past), and Wen Jiang's (Chinese Zodiac) gun-toting warrior Baze Malbus, who believes only in the power produced when he squeezes his trigger finger. Meanwhile, K-2SO shoots up to the top of the heap of characters that bear watching, only because the droid is improbably imbued with the most discernable personality among a human cast of mostly stock characterizations.
In addition to the trouble with engaging characterizations, Edwards has trouble building momentum or generating suspense for most of the early run time of Rogue One, causing us to question just how much of his original vision resides in the much more exciting final third. Certain elements synonymous with the Star Wars franchise are diminished, including the sense of fun, discovery, adventure, as well as the universal appeal to younger viewers, many of whom will likely stir anxiously in their seats for something to occur on the screen that will captivate them. While the inert aspects of Edwards' presentation doesn't carry all of the way through, there's just a bit too much of it that permeates Rogue One to not feel somewhat impatient for it to kick in an adrenaline rush.
Ultimately, despite being disappointed that Rogue One is expendable and largely uninspired in its execution, there are enough moments when it comes alive for me to give a mild recommendation for fans of the franchise who are willing to take it in merely as a traditional war film that plays around in the sandbox created by George Lucas in the 1970s. That space battle is truly magnificent, and the tropical island showdown for the ground troops is, at the very least, something we haven't seen before.
There are also a good deal of nods to the fans of Star Wars, who will no doubt find amusement and titillation in the many references (Vader's presence brings an excitement not generated by any other character in the film, and he's barely in it), though that is an aspect that will certainly vary, depending on the level of knowledge you bring into it. While I respect the effort to bring a new story told in a different way, I don't think any future spin-offs should follow suit because, if I'm being completely honest, had Rogue One been the first Star Wars film, we'd likely never see any others.
©2016 Vince Leo