I was little late to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and if I’m to be totally honest I wasn’t in any rush. Last year I wrote a very positive review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but on multiple viewings I found myself less enthusiastic. Not that The Force Awakens was bad – it wasn’t. But something about J. J. Abrams desire to play it safe made it largely forgettable. The narrative, characters, various set-pieces, and general energy of the film felt a little tired and by the numbers. But I’m a realist… now well in to my thirties, I’m far less enamoured with this kind of blockbuster filmmaking than I was as a kid. That’s my problem. Having said all that, when I finally made the trek to see Rogue One, I found myself far more excited than originally expected. After all, everybody seemed to love it.
Unfortunately – don’t hate me – I find myself entirely unable to get on this particular bandwagon. I had a basic idea of what was to be expected from Rogue One. Having been a Star Wars watcher for much of my life, I completely understood where the film was situated within the canon. This was going to be the Dirty Dozen or Magnificent Seven of the Star Wars universe: assemble a motley crew of eccentric heroes, send them on a mission, and most likely watch most of them get killed off one-by-one in glorious fashion. What I didn’t expect was that the film would ultimately feel entirely recycled, feebly assembled from the leftovers of other Star Wars films, stapled to a people-on-a-mission movie.
Everything about Rogue One signalled an attempt to flag its connection to past films and cinematic clichés. A central protagonist, tormented by her past, endowed with an apathetic moral attitude only to be turned towards the righteous path of resistance in the third act. A lazily concocted and unconsummated love affair with a fellow soldier. A blind martial-arts master prone to espousing eastern wisdom. The invariable mission that would include the collection of keys, the flicking of switches and the activation of panels. The aforementioned by-the-numbers approach to lining the team up and killing them off one-by-one, generally right after they’ve heroically pressed one of those important buttons. The inevitable scene involving a slicing and dicing fan that must be passed. And of course, numerous moments in which protagonists, unarmed and at the mercy of an armed opponent, are saved at the last second by a third party entering the scene and blasting away the bad guy. And barely a minute went by without some forcefully introduced reference to another Star Wars film that broke the narrative flow. But you know what, all of this would have been good old-fashioned fun, if it weren’t for the leaden writing.
The script itself is so loaded with arbitrary exposition; sentimentality designed to exploit Star Wars fans’ willingness to go along for the ride; and shallow characterisation that I found myself absolutely disconnected by the time the very loud (and quite well-crafted) third act arrived. It’s that last point that proved the most overwhelming for me – shallow characterisation. One need only look at the American New Wave of the 1970s, the original Star Wars trilogy, or many of the high-end television programs today to understand that plot should always run a close second to the development of believable characters, constructed in such a way as to elevate them beyond being mere archetypes. A Star Wars film should not be about Sassy Woman, Hard Edged Resistance Fighter, Martial Arts Man, and Funny Robot. Sure, we depend on these archetypes to provide enough recognisable elements to take us on the narrative journey, but they also need to become people. Rogue One fails entirely on this account – characters become mere vehicles, driving towards a series of admittedly spectacular explosions and battle sequences.
And the result of all this poor writing is, of course, that many great actors find themselves entirely stranded by the material, floundering in their attempts to turn their lines into something of substance. I felt sorry for Forest Whitaker, the filmmakers having spent much more time on his costume than actually giving him something to do. Not only was his character shoved in as an almost entirely irrelevant side-note (I can only assume this character is a nod to Star Wars novels or something similar), but the hokey lines and wishy-washy nature of his character’s motivations left Whitaker more abandoned than he was in Battlefield Earth. A special nod should go to Mads Mikkelson – perhaps the one actor able to salvage his character, despite very limited screen-time.
Add to all this the inclusion of a digital character in the form of the deceased Peter Cushing, resurrected via CGI in the role of Grand Moff Tarkin, which he originally brought to life in Star Wars: A New Hope. I’ll throw my hat in the ring as one of the many people who found this decision to be icky at best, and ethically problematic at worst (yes, I know that his estate gave permission – but HE didn’t). Many have spoken about how effective this CGI character is, and I have no doubt that this kind of thing has never been done as well as it is here. But frankly, it looks more disturbing than convincing, and I couldn’t help but recall the horrific exploitation of Bruce Lee’s image in Game of Death. Call me old fashioned, but I think that deceased actors should be left to rest in peace.
And is this, as many have suggested, much darker than most of the other films in the series? Grittier and more brutal? Not that I can recall. If anything, the disposable nature of the characters removed the opportunity to become emotionally entangled in the various conflicts and deaths that occur along the way. This is not The Empire Strikes Back. It’s not the violent presence of the emperor in Return of the Jedi. It’s not even the fall of Anakin in Revenge of the Sith. Frankly, it’s all pretty fluffy and cute.
The positives? As mentioned, the action in the third act is outstanding by any measure. But for myself, the only great moment came with the entrance of Darth Vader in the film’s final moments. His violent decimation of those who stood before him reminded me of just how tired I’d become of all these Rebels. I have no great desire to take a beating from the fans, but there is something going wrong in Hollywood, and it’s all on display in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.