2014’s Godzilla was underwhelming. A great third act action sequence couldn’t wash out the taste of bad character writing and a poor narrative. Unfortunately four writers and the Star Wars license can’t fix director Edward Gareth’s shortcomings. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn’t so much a story as it is a sequence of things that happen some people. But hey, it looks good. This review have spoilers.
The Star Wars universe has never looked this good, period. The inside of imperial buildings are fantastically stark and clean and hideouts are messy, filthy places. Props, sets, and (most) CGI all blends together under a consistent aesthetic that finds that sweet spot between the rough realism of the original trilogy and the overly manicured prequels. This is the most real Star Wars has ever felt in terms of setting.
Action sequences are well paced and directed and there isn’t overuse of CGI (in the action scenes). The CGI used to recreate Tarkin, Leia, and not-Admiral-Ackbar was atrocious to the degree I was shocked that it was in a $200 million budgeted movie. Even if you’re not a fan of the aesthetics, Edwards continues to showcase his expertise of shot composition. Every shot of the Death Star felt intimidating and the set pieces are beautiful. The third act especially looks gorgeous. X-wings and TIE Fighters and all manner of Star Wars vehicle and ships all fly about and there’s plenty of explosions throughout. But no matter how pretty it all is, it fails to ignite any sort of emotional response. There’s little to no emotional impact from the action due to our main cast being so poorly characterized and motivated.
Big Picture vs. Small Picture
One of the main story points in Rouge One is the idea of the seedier, less honorable side of the Rebellion being the main focus of the movie and “the little guys”. The movie does a good job of establishing the Rebellion as being less than pure good on a grand scale, but the movie also highlights Forrest Whitaker’s character as being to rebellious for the Rebels and paints him as more of a fanatic than a positive influence which undercuts the whole “Rebellion isn’t pure” angle. Whitaker’s character only serves functional plot purposes and there’s no actual emotional payoff with him and even his functions in the plot could’ve been done without the character in other, less time consuming ways. The movie also brings up “hope” frequently, with characters saying “Rebellions are built on hope” no less than three times. Any message about the lack of heroism in war or the grey area between terrorism and guerrilla warfare is lost in a muddled script and unmotivated characters. Handsome leading man aside, none of our main characters are shown doing anything truly objectionable that we haven’t seen before. I’d use the characters’ names, but aside from Jyn, I can’t recall; so many names, people and planets, get tossed at you it’s dizzying. Calling these characters “paper thin” is like calling the Death Star “big”, it’s accurate, but it doesn’t convey the scale of the thing. These characters lack interesting interactions, motivations, relationships, and arcs. Jyn goes from wanting to find her dad to doing what her dad wants her to do. Leading man wants to follow orders until he doesn’t. And Donnie Yen loves the Force and hangs out with a guy who has a big gun and they’re friends because they had the same job. And there’s a pilot who has safety goggles he wouldn’t need, since he pilots from closed cockpits, and doesn’t use in the film to my recollection. The one standout character was K2, a reprogrammed droid who has a dry and sarcastic sense of humor. And the fact I felt the most when the robot died instead of our main characters speaks volumes to this films problems with character building. There’s no downtime where the crew just talks and gets to know each other which could’ve let us get to know and would show some sort of bond forming between them. I felt worse for random Rebel soldiers who died than our main cast when they died. Our antagonist is Director Krennick, or Kennick. Ken is an ambitious Imperial officer who wants to climb the Imperial ladder because he’s evil and a meanie. You may think I’m being overly simplistic with these character descriptions, but there isn’t really anything to them. We know Donnie Yen and his gun friend were former guardians of a Jedi temple, but beyond that and Yen’s Force fanboyisms we don’t know their personalities, why they decided to guard the Jedi temple, why they care about anything beyond surviving.
Cassian tells us the Empire killed his family when he was young, similar to Jyn, and that he’s done things he regrets in a speech that’s the closest the film comes to making him an actually interesting character; but we’re not shown his regret. We’re told how much Jyn and her dad love each other but beyond a nickname and a hug we don’t see this love. When you’re characters fall this flat, not even fantastic action can get an audience invested. There’s a sentiment that this film doesn’t need its characters to be destined saviors, and that is correct. This movie didn’t need to make Jyn some destined savior or a dormant Jedi to make me care, but she needed to be interesting or relatable. When people say this film’s characters are bad it’s not because they aren’t goody-two shoes, it’s because the characters aren’t compelling. And overall the film doesn’t add much to the Star Wars mythos and what it does add doesn’t feel like it justifies over two hours of plodding, dry, dialogue. Rogue One tries to tell a story about “the little guys” doing big things and affecting the galaxy, but doesn’t make the little guys compelling. For a film that can convey the power of the Empire through cinematography so beautifully and efficiently it’s strange that couldn’t do the same for the little guys.
The Final Word(s)
It’s easy, some would say lazy, criticism to say things like “the characters were bad” or to bring up the “show, don’t tell” rule, but Rogue One fails to understand these two points so often and so consistently that it feels half-assed even with its production values. We’re in an era where big blockbuster action movies seem to have mainly figured themselves out. DC comic book movies aside, most large action films have plots and characters that make sense and work well. For Rogue One to miss these points is baffling. Rogue One is a disappointing start to the Star Wars spinoff series, but hopefully Donald Glover, Chris Miller, and Phil Lord can save us with the (unnecessary) Han Solo spinoff. Odds are you’ve already seen Rogue One, but if you haven’t, save your money; you aren’t missing much.
2 out of 5 stars
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