One of the depressingly few things “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” gets right is its attempt to put the “war” in “Star Wars.” Instead of focusing on the politics and human drama of the galaxy’s elite, it follows the messier struggle of the more ordinary members of the “Star Wars” universe, the rank and file men and women who do the dirty work while the glamorous Jedi and political leaders get all the credit. It’s refreshing to see a side of this universe we normally don’t and for the series to acknowledge how messy war actually is, in comparison to its sanitized depictions in previous films.
In terms of the “Star Wars” timeline, “Rogue One” takes place shortly before “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.” It tells the story of the how the Rebel Alliance came into the possession of the Death Star plans everyone is so fixated on throughout “A New Hope.” The film follows a rag-tag team of spies led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) helped develop the Death Star. “Rogue One” is a clear attempt at taking advantage of the galaxy’s worth of stories available in this universe.
One of the biggest problems with last year’s “The Force Awakens” is that the filmmakers seemed to be telling a remixed version of the same story we’ve already seen, while there are so many opportunities to do something different, a cornucopia of creatures, worlds, and situations where artists could let their imaginations run wild.
But that’s precisely the problem. Disney and Lucasfilm don’t want artists running roughshod over this cash cow of a franchise and risk turning it into box office poison. They want yes-men and well-trained craftspeople who are willing to take corporate orders at the expense of telling a compelling story or providing a moving cinematic experience. There was hope that this wouldn’t be the case with “Rogue One” with director Gareth Edwards at the helm. Despite its flaws, his 2014 sequel/reboot of “Godzilla” had a grandeur and cosmic awe that blockbusters can provide when handled properly.
Clichéd story beats and paper thin characters run amok in both films, but for Edwards, they reflect the larger ideas that make up his main thematic concern: the illustration of how individuals are tiny — but not insignificant — parts of a very large and indifferent universe. The difference is that those clichés and lack of character development are much easier to explain away in “Godzilla,” due to the fact that it had personality. It had its flaws and indulgences, like most movies, but they were off-set by moments of tremendous inspiration and vision. With “Rogue One,” the filmmakers have unsuccessfully attempted to sand those rough edges down, accidentally getting rid of any virtue the movie might have had.
Gone are sequences as breathtaking as Godzilla’s initial reveal or the famous scene with paratroopers being dropped into a metropolitan war zone, replaced here with numbingly endless battle scenes and character deaths that have absolutely no impact or meaning. For the life of me, I cannot recall a single compelling shot from the entire film, whereas I could draw about a dozen shots from “Godzilla” off the top of my head right now. The same goes for any other formal element in the film. The sound design, art direction, editing — they’re all about what you would expect from a “Star Wars” film. The only thing I can praise is the realistic visual effects work and Greig Fraser’s cinematography. (And even then, it’s really only his lighting, not his framing or use of color, that impresses).
Most of this movie feels taken out of a “Blockbuster Playbook” that the writers were far too rigorous in sticking too. In “Godzilla,” whatever references there were to previous entries in the franchise served only as a basis for the story, bedrock upon which to build the new story and to give the proceeding action the weight of history and an already established world. In “Rogue One,” most references and callbacks, despite a few instances of narrative justification, act as infantilizing fan service that panders to audience nostalgia. I would guess that anyone who hasn’t seen a “Star Wars” film before wouldn’t understand half of them.
As a result, “Rogue One” is not a real attempt at crafting an honest-to-God movie, but just another lifeless, nondescript wheel in the “Star Wars” Franchise Self-Perpetuation Machine. The common complaint for these types films is that they come across “trailers for themselves.” I beg to differ, since that implies the filmmakers and their corporate overlords are at least aiming for a singular experience. The reality is even more sinister and depressing: These movies are trailers for their respective brands. They’re not selling you on the idea of the movie “Rogue One,” they’re selling you on the idea of “Star Wars” itself. Contrary to the perception they’ve created, Disney has never been the magic studio, where satisfying entertainments are made and dreams come true. Disney has always been and always will be one thing: a marketing firm, an advertising agency. They sell the idea of entertainment and fantasy without the actually providing it.
Whatever admirable qualities “Rogue One” may have— the most admirable? A diverse cast of men and women rebelling against a tyrannical, oppressive government made up entirely of old white men. How’s that for political relevance? — are dwarfed by the demands of the studio. Once a fine example of the joys of popular art, I sense the “Star Wars” series has turned to the Dark Side.