Why I just couldn’t like ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

Rogue OneSPOILER ALERT: IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN ROGUE ONE, OR HAVE ANY INTEREST IN SEEING IT, DO NOT READ ON.

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.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

16 thoughts on “Why I just couldn’t like ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

  1. I sorry you didn’t like it so much – me, I enjoyed it and so did my dad, and it’s so far the one STAR WARS film I’ve seen more times in theaters than any of the previous entries, but then again I suppose it’s all just a matter of taste and deep scrutiny.

    Being one who knows that watching and reviewing films can be more of a chore than a privilege sometimes, I guess maybe I’m hoping for a New Wave to emerge, and while I enjoyed ROGUE ONE, I have the feeling that eventually the formula established in once fresh enterprises like the original STAR WARS will begin to thin out, as will most reboots and remakes of franchises not even half a century old.

    Having grown up and watched the original saga at home, having to slog it out through the prequels, and now only mildly showing some respect and admiration for STAR WARS returning to its late 20th-century roots, I feel like more needs to be done, or that the Force needs to let this saga meet a distinctive, dignified end and find an original filmmaker with an original, yet similarly-themed and more daring, concept to emerge to challenge its reign. But that’s just me – I’ll reflect more on my experiences of the saga in whole for one of my later articles.

  2. Pingback: Rogue Fan | Observaterry

  3. I know that a lot of my comrades were upholding the film as an instance of anti-imperialism in filmmaking, something Disney does not normally make, but I am not sure if that is enough to give it a critical pass; yes, there is a sort of real anti-imperial feel to the film, but this is not to say that it is radical.

    My own thoughts are that it was a solid film. But it was too predictable and cliched. Additionally, I did not care for the typical cast of characters– the blind, Eastern warrior simply grated on my nerves and shows that Disney will continue Lucas’s tradition of exploiting stereotypes to make a profit.

    I will say that I disagree with your assement about the Empire. Honestly, it is only in Rogue One that the Empire actually feels, well, evil. In the original trilogy they were simply evil and that was the end of it; why they were evil was brushed under the rug along with their motivations for being evil. Everything was in a vacuum. The Prequel movies, meanwhile, only had a glimpse of the Empire as formely seen and so as very layered in the early freedoms of the republic, so not very evil. The successor to the Empire– The First Order– as seen in the new trilogy, doesn’t seem evil because, honestly, other than being psychotic fascists, we don’t understand anything about them other than that they have this ability to wipe out entire planets. Their evil seemed so over-the-top that it appeared bengin– how can I see the First Order as truly evil when their mass slaughter makes them the bad guy by desgin?

    In Rogue One, meanwhile, the Empire is seen exploiting economically poor world, hunting down Rebel cells, forcing scientists to work for them at gun point, all while being commanded by a quasi-mystical magician-warrior who keeps military projects hidden from the imperial senate and, as you illustrated in your own review, can truly kick some ass when called upon. In short, the Empire here seemed evil because it seemed closer to reality– their actions were believable, not stilted.

    As a film, though, which was just meant as a cash grab, and nothing more than a bridge between episodes, I thought it could have been a lot worse. I think I liked it better than episode seven.

  4. Haven’t seen this yet, but I’ve felt this same way about the entire franchise for a while now. Shame, because I feel there is a great story(ies) to be told, but they don’t seem to be making their way to film in any competent way. Too much focus on the wrong elements. Storytelling is perhaps a lost art.

  5. I watched Force Awakens on TV on Saturday. Not bad. Certainly no great tell-your-mates-to-see-it film. But easily watchable. And I’m in my 50s. If you reckon these films are old hat in your 30s, just give it 20 years. I’m in the most-films-are-rubbish demographic.

  6. This is the first Star Wars movie I won’t be seeing, having a history with the franchise that goes right back to a summer’s day in 1977, standing in a queue outside Hoyts Cinema Centre in Bourke Street and hearing the manager say ‘We’re sold out for this session but we are now selling tickets for the next session.’
    The Force Awakens was the end of it for me. Cute references to earlier movies grated, as did the hamfisted attempts to align events. And 150 minutes was at least 50 minutes too long. Rogue One clocks in at the same time… 90 minutes worth of story told in 90 minutes is entertainment. 90 minutes worth of story spread over more than two hours is indulgence on the part of the film maker, and boredom for me.

  7. A great review, James, that expresses most of the issues I had with the film as well. I was also puzzled by the decision to replicate the great Peter Cushing digitally … to me it seemed weird, owing to the fact that he is deceased; it was hard to take my mind off the fact that he didn’t perform in Rogue One. But one of the most awful ideas in the movie, in my opinion, was basically to rip off the character of Zatoichi the blind swordsman–without, seemingly, much, if any, acknowledgment. What’s next: Sanjuro Kuwabatake as a Sith Lord?

    Of course, you’re absolutely on point about the lack of character development in the picture as well. I thought the “funny” robot was an irritant and a missed opportunity, while the love story was poorly conceived. Pretty dreary stuff.

  8. Someone comes rushing to your defence, James. (Just like in the film perhaps?)

    As you know, I have been banging on for years about tired series, pointless sequels, and awful remakes. That ‘something wrong in Hollywood’ has been wrong for a very long time now, and shows little sign of catching on to the laziness and lack of originality that seems to have become the norm and pervaded the industry.
    I haven’t watched a Star Wars film since ‘Return of The Jedi’, and very much doubt I will ever bother with this one. There is only so much derivation I can stomach, and my interest in seeing light sabres and storm-troopers has long faded.

    Not only that, I have the new version of ‘Blade Runner’ to worry about too!

    Best wishes, Pete.

  9. While I can respect your views on the movie I have to say I disagree with you. No the movie may not be Empire Strikes Back “dark”, but I feel it is an excellent entry into the Star Wars universe.

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