Honestly, I expected more from Rogue One. It’s a diverse addition to Star Wars with a brave, interesting focus, but time and again I kept thinking it could have been much better.
Right before A New Hope, the Empire dominates the galaxy, Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) masterminding construction of the Death Star. He forces Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to work on its laser weapon system, and years later Erso’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) is press-ganged by the Rebellion into helping find Galen. Alongside soldier Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and snarky, reprogrammed Imperial droid K2-SO (Alan Tudyk), they form a ragtag gang with defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Force believer Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and mercenary friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and end up searching for the Death Star plans (which will eventually end up in the hands of a certain Princess…)
Director Gareth Edwards has form for bringing something new to an established series. His Godzilla was different yet deficient in many similar aspects to Rogue One, and here his unique eye for filmmaking again makes for a breath of fresh air. Like The Force Awakens, Edwards both apes George Lucas and offers something new, including diverse planets; handheld, ground-level views of space conflict and awesome destruction; and a gritty, darker air. It also looks fantastic – vibrantly different and multicultural settings make this universe feel dense and layered. Cinematographer Greig Fraser nails the used and dirty aesthetic and contrasts it greatly with the shiny, sleek Empire much as the original series did, but with that modern touch.
However – there were extensive reshoots, and you can watch the trailers and see how much never made it in (read that link after you’ve seen the film). This is something worth discussing because Edwards reportedly didn’t complete the film – replacement writer/director Tony Gilroy did – and this is obvious when the (great in some ways) conclusion inevitably takes focus away from the main group to sync up with A New Hope. The script, written first by Gary Whitta, then Chris Weitz and finally Gilroy, emphasises this schizophrenia, dragging then rushing, slowing down then accelerating headlong into the finale: and characters are only thinly set up, when a little more time would have made them memorable.
Whatever happened, whatever changed, the conclusion is brave. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an event movie end like that, and the writers and director should be commended for ensuring the harsh realities of war are reflected, even though we know the Death Star does get destroyed. The whole last act is fraught with danger and expectation, while the great battle only previously discussed in A New Hope’s title crawl is genuinely dramatic – the action is great whenever it happens.
Felicity Jones is a great actress, and while a Star Wars film doesn’t necessarily mean a character will be Oscar-worthy, I expected more. Instead, she mostly mopes, and earlier trailers had hinted at a conflict of motivations that doesn’t exist. She’s yet another reluctant hero, turning on a coin flip – maybe Jones might have brought her A-game only to see it lost in the reshoots, but Jyn is mundane. Mads Mikkelsen is sorely underused as her father Galen, whose conflict between duty and revenge – and his key role in the series as a result – could have been played up with better writing. As it is, he serves only as a plot device, one particular scene painful to watch as he serves as a rushed expository for the main story.
Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor is first introduced as a unique, more morally grey hero, but his change in perspective and subsequent actions are rushed – it’s as if he was set up as one thing then forced to become the standard hero. One of the few standing out is Alan Tudyk, motion-captured as gangly droid K2-SO. Tudyk offers much-needed humour and a touch of malevolent sullenness – K2 is a perfect counterpoint to C-3PO’s prissy worrier. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is both slimy and unmoved by the Empire’s hierarchical nonsense, and more of his snivelling, corporate villain might have offered humour and insight into how the Empire functions. However, the introduction of a well-known character from A New Hope robs him of the chance to really stand out.
Another interesting new character is Chirrut Imwe, a blind Force-devotee played by action hero Donnie Yen, and whose belief in the Force as something spiritual was welcome, presenting a fresh perspective into a world without Jedi. Yen is also a key part of the humour in his double-act with Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus, his gruff, non-believer friend, but again we needed more from these two: for them to be more integral to the plot, particularly the way their stories pan out. Riz Ahmed really loses out though as Imperial defector Bodhi Rook, a character filled with potential (why did he defect and what made him change his mind) but completely superfluous onscreen.
Forest Whitaker’s odd performance, as rebel extremist Saw Guerrera, is similarly underexplored – heavily featured in trailers, he barely does onscreen, so why go to the pains of making him a key part of the plot if we get little time with him? Finally, a certain Dark Lord of the Sith is back (look at the poster, right hand side), but his return is disappointing. James Earl Jones comes back to voice him, but time (and some awful sound editing) have diminished his booming delivery, and other than Vader’s final, brutal appearance (one of the best scenes), it was a missed opportunity.
Michael Giacchino’s score is a valiant, impressive effort (recorded very fast as a result of the reshoots), ably aping John Williams and trying hard not to use his iconic themes until totally necessary – in future he is definitely the person to take over. The special effects – put it this way: the worlds, ships, space and ground battles are all cutting-edge and flawless. The space conflict is probably what Lucas wanted to achieve 40 years ago, and finally technology has caught up. K2-SO is yet another marvel, Tudyk’s performance mapped over so tangibly as to feel real. However – I really can’t say the same for two huge instances of character-based CGI. These appear to be splitting audiences down the middle – I knew immediately when I was seeing the dodgy effects, and Rogue One‘s conclusion – as well as some other scenes – were ruined as a result.
The film is good but not great – at least it valiantly tries to be different, but it’s hamstrung by trying too hard to meet with the original series. It’s better than the prequels though…