You read the title of this article, so you know what this will be about. Before I get to that, let me get some things out of the way. Rogue One is a beautifully-shot film, using light and scene composition not seen before in Star Wars. George Lucas and the other 2 directors that did the first 6 films focused on telling a story, and, for the most part, did so with little care for ostentatious visual flare, and while Abrams was content to play in the box his predecessors created, Gareth Edwards instead brings a masterfully-crafted visual aesthetic to the film franchise never before seen. If you enjoyed the visually stunning 2014 Godzilla, you’ll likely enjoy the cinematography here too since Edwards re-uses many of his shooting techniques here as well.
However, as important as visual flare is, it is not the only thing one should judge a film by. In terms of audio, you won’t be finding a Duel of Fates or an Anakin’s Dark Deeds here; the score is completely forgettable and doesn’t serve to enhance any scene happening. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice to create further distinction between these anthology movies and the “Episodes,” but it’s not a choice that enhances the movie, I feel. In addition, those oft-wacky sounds that end up being far too memorable that one associates with Star Wars is not present in this film. You know what I mean: the stuff like Jango’s bombs in Attack of the Clones or Boga the veractyl’s distinct cry in Revenge of the Sith.
I mention this because the audio design lacking that certain oomph is emblematic of the rest of the film. Rogue One is a movie. That’s all that can really be said about it, which is why I’m not doing a review. There’s nothing to review. It’s so middle of the road it’s hard to drum up enough interest to. Instead, I will share with you the main reasons Rogue One is such a forgettable feature. Now, without further ado, let us get started.
It does not expand the star wars universe; it does the opposite.
A common theme I see on the internet, and on many a blogger’s site is that Rogue One was focused on expanding the Star Wars universe for Disney—that “Rogue One draws deep on Star Wars mythology while breaking new narrative and aesthetic ground,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth, I find. You see, Rogue One has, what I like to call, “The Oscorp Problem.” The stillborn Amazing Spiderman cinematic universe had a major misstep in that it tied all of Peter’s problems to Oscorp (read more here), and in doing so made his world much smaller and much more contained. Oscorp wasn’t a problem, it was the problem.
We, as nerds, love continuity. We love when things tie together. That’s what gets our nerd juices flowing, if you will. I mean, sometimes making a connection between two or more things is really tempting and seems really easy to do, so why not do it? Well the answer is fairly obvious: it makes the world smaller. When you connect everything, you’re definitely making a tighter canon, but at the same time you’re centralizing your story and shrinking your world. Think about it for a moment, and realize what were the odds that we’d be on another desert planet (no, it being a moon doesn’t detract from my point) in Rogue One? What were the odds that Bail Organa would be so high up in the rebel command? The same peace-loving Bail Organa from the prequels, I might add. Sure, you could argue that it makes sense for him to be, but as the saying goes, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. This is a narrative trap, and you can listen to a very informative video on the concept here.
This film, in a moment that was supposed to be endearing, pulled me out of the experience when it showed Cornelius Evazan bumping into main characters, then the camera panned to his face and held it steady for what felt like an exorbitant amount of time. Of all the places in the galaxy he could’ve been, he’s there? I can accept the Force bringing the Jedi and Sith into conflict with each other, but why was it necessary for someone as inconsequential as Evazan to be there? Again, all this does is make the galaxy feel smaller with all these characters continuing to bump into each other. This was just an example of such a moment.
Those are just a few of many instances of canon welding that happened in Rogue One that served to centralize Star Wars lore and shrink it. Really, the only new thing added to the lexicon (or holocron for the more initiated among us) of moviegoers is “kyber crystal”. That’s the only new element introduced to the film franchise, and it’s forgotten after the first 20 minutes. In the old Expanded Universe continuity, it took 2 years and multiple missions for the Rebels to abscond with the Death Star’s plans, and they did so piecemeal, meaning someone stole a corridor’s layout here, another stole a weapons layout there, before combining it. In Rogue One, it’s done over the course of a few days and by one crew. The EU version, while more complicated, preserves Star Wars’ galactic scope, while the operation in this film not only served to make the Empire seem even more incompetent, but also lessened the scope.
Let me explain. In the original trilogy, Luke and the rebels are a ragtag group, and it’s meant to be astonishing that this small band of fighters are going up against the monolith that is the Empire. That sense of being the underdog goes out the window with this film, where the Rebels get a huge one over on the Empire in both the final act and in the first act where it’s revealed they put a weakness into the Death Star that the Empire was too stupid to find, and then escape the Death Star, all in the span of a couple of minutes. Putting this film into context, it’s impossible to think that this incompetent Empire had been the dominant oppressive force in the galaxy for 17 years, and that diminishes what was accomplished in the original trilogy. Though that seems par for the course in Disney’s Star Wars, where The Force Awakens completely undoes Return of the Jedi and Star Wars Rebels continues to make the Empire inept beyond reason.
Rogue One is all lip service.
This one sort of jumps off from the previous reason. See, this film sold itself as the gritty war film, but everything from the way the story is told, to how it ends runs counter to that claim. Rather than talk you into mental submission with word overload, I’d instead like to use one of my favorite war films, David Ayer’s Fury, as an example.
Fury is a movie about a group of US military men and their tank as they navigate Europe during World War 2. At some point in the film, they stop at a town that was occupied by many Nazis, and after handling the Nazis present, the film turns off the action and focuses on two members of the group of characters interacting with two civilians—an aunt and a niece—for roughly 20 minutes. That 20 minutes includes riveting and dynamic scenes like talking, washing, piano playing and eating breakfast. Really, we get to know the aunt and niece, who are again completely innocent, before their building is shelled by a Nazi bombardment and they die. We see the pain this causes our main character. We see two characters we got to know die onscreen—no protracted death sequence with giving verbose speeches that inspire—just senseless, gritty death. This is war. This is not Rogue One.
In Rogue One, we’re told that the rebellion isn’t that nice and has some moral ambiguity, but that flies out the window because we never see the Empire being anything but the cold, malicious thing it was in the original movies. There is no moral ambiguity introduced, even though it’s obvious that’s what they were trying for. In Rogue One, we’re told Saw Gerrera is a terrorist, but we never actually see it. Perhaps if there was a scene like the above described in Fury, where we got to know the people of moon-Tatooine and then saw Gerrera’s men making their lives miserable this would’ve been more than just lip service. I find it hard to believe that anyone could argue that this film was gritty when the leads die hugging, and the true main character spends most of the movie talking about hope, without suffering for it. It has the trappings of a gritty war story, but it doesn’t commit and falls very short.
I feel I should make it clear that I’m not saying I want to see Fury levels of grit in Star Wars, but I think this film could’ve still kept its PG-13 rating and done well to show that the Empire is a menace and that the movie is serious. Let’s look at Revenge of the Sith, for example. There are no heroic speeches when the Jedi are being gunned down from behind by their trusted clone troopers, there is no last minute save at the temple, and Anakin’s burning wasn’t to beautiful imagery, he was just there crying in agony as the flesh melted from his muscles. Not only are those more brutal in content than any of the noble, heroic deaths in Rogue One where every character gets a “moment”, they’re also wholly necessary for the story and are built up. These sequences mean something, as opposed to the dozens of chase scenes that make up The Force Awakens and Rogue One.
Truly, this one aspect of the film is emblematic of Rogue One on a meta level. Indeed, the narrative spun across the web seems to be that Disney took a chance by making Rogue One, but did it really? Was the “chance taken” by precluding Jedi from the action? If so, it’s not really much of a chance since Han Solo, Jango Fett and Boba Fett, some of the most memorable characters in the franchise, aren’t Jedi and are insanely popular. Was the “chance taken” by not having it be an “Episode”? Well, not really since it has “Star Wars” in its name. Even the Clone Wars animated film from 2008 was a huge financial success because it had the “Star Wars” branding on it. Is it that Rogue One is a standalone film? Well it really isn’t since it ties in directly to A New Hope. This is a film as unambitious and as safe as you could possibly get.
It answers questions that nobody asked. Not even the characters.
Now I know what you may be thinking: “You talk so favorably about the EU, but that’s all they did!” Yes, but it’s far cheaper to write a novel, or draw a comic book, and in most cases, to make a video game. The EU could afford to do productions where it filled in background details that are largely irrelevant, and it did so with multiple background events simultaneously. You don’t want to read the story of Quinlan Vos, well that’s okay, because you can find a story about Obi-Wan in his youth, or Dooku training Qui-Gon etc. With these Disney productions, there is no alternative and these movies take hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. With that comes the fully justified expectation that we’ll be told a story that matters.
When the Death Star’s plans being stolen was mentioned in Episode 4, no character asked, or cared to ask “how?” The rebels also didn’t care to elucidate on that. It was just a background element that had no real implication. It was a superfluous detail that didn’t matter to the narrative, or the characters. It just was. This is also true for how Rogue Squadron was formed. It was another entity that existed. We didn’t need this film showing us how they started because neither the narrative of Episode 4, nor the characters present cared, and thus we, the viewers, didn’t either.
I’ve seen people try to make the argument that Rogue One was needed because it “bridged the gap between the prequels and the originals,” but it really didn’t. The end of Episode 3 did that. It killed off Padme, did away with the prequel characters, set up Luke and Leia, moved Obi-Wan to Tatooine, gave birth to Vader and showed us the Death Star being constructed. Heck, the end of Episode 3 even introduced Grand Moff Tarkin. It set up the status quo of the galaxy we see in A New Hope.
Now you may be thinking “Did we need the prequels then?” To that I say “Yes.” You see, we spent a large chunk of the original movies with characters reminiscing about the glory days, before the empire. We’re told about the Jedi, we’re told about this civilized age, we’re told about this Anakin Skywalker who was a great pilot. The prequels existing enhance the originals, while telling a political, galaxy-spanning tale that seems to be most relevant to our current political climate. The prequels told a story that was important, different from the originals and, above all else, ambitious. Beyond all of that, we know the prequels exist because George Lucas mapped out this story decades before the first film, but felt the technology at the time couldn’t do it:
I never thought I’d do the Star Wars prequels, because the
re was no real way I could get Yoda to fight. There was no way I could go over Coruscant, this giant city-planet. But once you had digital, there was no end to what you could do.
Mind you, Lucas and his team still had to invent most of the visual effects technology that they needed to make the prequels happen, so that’s even more effort on his part. What’s the point here? It’s that the prequels were made from George Lucas’ passion, and are intimately tied to the original trilogy’s story and themes. They’re needed and gives us crucial backstory and context that we were always meant to have. Rogue One, on the other hand, tells a safe story nobody wanted to hear and is just another movie off Disney’s corporate assembly line.
For example, the stakes in Revenge of the Sith for Anakin is Padme’s life. He’ll do anything to save her, even deplorable acts, and we, as the viewers can understand why he’s doing what he’s doing and we’re enthralled to see how it ends for him. That’s stakes.
The problem with Rogue One is it’s a movie devoid of stakes. We know the Rebellion gets the Death Star plans because we saw Episode 4. We never saw any of these characters introduced in this film that are built up as important in the original movies, so the end where all of them die was a given to many people. These two facts (that the main characters will either die or go away and that the bad guys lose their plans) make it so the story has no stakes. It’s hard to be invested in characters you know are going to die, and it’s hard to care about what the Empire is doing because we know they’re going to lose their plans anyway. Why should I be invested in any of these characters?
This, too, is a problem people had with the prequels, but it was not a problem as pronounced as Rogue One’s. The prequel movies, while they couldn’t kill Anakin or Palpatine, they could maim them, torture them and make them suffer, and in addition to this, we know they survive into the original trilogy where they’re their own characters. That create’s a level of investment that Rogue One simply does not have. Now I don’t wish to sound like I’m a better screenwriter than those that wrote this film, because I most assuredly am not, nor do I wish to sound like I’m smarter than all the people that worked on this film because, again, I most assuredly am (probably) not, but I think making the heroes fail more during the course of the film would’ve gone a long way to helping it feel more like the things happening mattered. For me, personally though, Rogue One was dead on arrival due to its premise and how devoid of tension that premise is from the get-go.
Why does this movie need to exist?
Here we come to the fifth reason and the real crux of the matter: why is this a film? As I said before, there was no artistic impetus for this movie, and it strove to be nothing more than it is. Let me guess what you’re thinking again: “No art needs to exist!” If I’m right, you’re wrong. Art, whether it be a country’s flag, an icon, music or a film, art has always been important.
Rogue One had no grand story to tell in-universe, since no character cared about it. Rogue One had no themes it tackled earnestly. Rogue One did not have a message it felt needed to be conveyed. Why does this film exist? With everything I’ve said before in mind, I ask you, reader, who needed this movie?
As you can probably tell from going through this, I did not enjoy Rogue One as a film. It felt creatively-sterile and too paint by the numbers for me. It’s a competently made movie, but when that’s all one can sum up to describe the film, there’s a problem. I can’t even bring myself to review this film because it is that bland, that forgettable and ultimately, that unsatisfying. One can at least make an argument (but not a good one) for why The Force Awakens exists, but there is none for Rogue One outside of the obvious: “Disney wanted a payday.”
Now excuse me as I sit here trying to the best of my ability to remember the lead heroine’s name.