With its release on home video, we come to the unsurprising and yet still bitter disappointment that is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Unsurprising, because of a lousy director. Disappointing, because it should have been great. To explain further will involve light spoilers; I will avoid larger giveaways.
In a galaxy far, far away, the Empire continues to consolidate its power after the fall of the Republic (see Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith). Toward that end, they are assembling a giant battle station, the Death Star. The Rebel Alliance plots a way of finding out what’s going on and perhaps, in the process, save their collective butts. Rebellious galivanting ensues.
All of the elements necessary to craft a good story are here, yet none of them work. The blame lies almost exclusively at the feet of director Gareth Edwards. This is his third film (after Monsters and Godzilla) and his failings as a director stand out in each. The major problems with each film involve the people, namely that they never feel or act like people. Be it the decidedly unlikeable couple in Monsters, or the horrible performance of what’s-his-face in Godzilla, the people in Edwards’ films just make me cringe and root for whoever or whatever is attempting to kill them. I never accept them as actual people and never understand why I should care whether they live or die.
The second major failing of R1 is Disney’s fault. You could have hoped for something new, a new story within an expansive universe. You could have hoped that the never-ending fan service and rehashes of The Force Awakens were limited to that film. Alas, your hopes would be dashed by R1. There are nonsensical cameos in this film, at least one of which is jarring, completely out of time and place. The film couldn’t entirely avoid references to Star Wars IV: A New Hope. After all, the end of R1 needs to tie into the beginning of SW4 (the one thing it mostly succeeds in doing, by the way). Still, in total the flood of tie-ins become annoying.
There is not one single likeable or agreeable or even interesting character in the entire film (a robot comes closest), which is a rather amazing accomplishment when you think about it. Much has been made about the diverse cast, of which Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang are easily the best, but it’s squandered.
No one expresses any sense of genuine motivation and there’s no background, backdrop, backstory, etc. What is the Empire and why is it bad? Who are the Rebels and why are they good? What is the Alliance and why do we care? Who are any of the people involved with any of the above and why should I give a damn? All of this information may be conveyed in simply moments, with almost throwaway lines. Even in The Empire Strikes Back there were occasional moments that gave you bits of background, some sense as to why people are doing what they’re doing, some notion of the stakes at play. Here, as with The Force Awakens, nothing.
The entire film lacks context. The appearance of Jimmy Smits is a perfect illustration of this. Who is he? What’s he doing? Who will he trust his life with? In order to understand any of this you must have seen at least the prequels. If you come into R1 cold, as at least a couple of my friends did, you have no idea what’s going on.
As a result, the film suffers from a deplorable excess of Things Happen Because Plot. For example, near the film’s very beginning, Diego Luna’s character, one of the film’s heroes mind you, kills a friend and ally by shooting him in the back. He does this in order to complete his mission and, apparently, ensure his personal survival. But later in the film he won’t “take the shot” needed to complete his mission and, apparently, ensure his personal survival. Instead, he has some vague, unmotivated epiphany because Plot.
One character lets himself be killed because Statement. His death achieves precisely nothing; it’s not even a coherent statement. Another is saved one moment by not being assassinated, only to be killed in the next, again because Statement. People die because it’s all supposed to be dark and edgy, but instead it’s all gratuitous. I feel like asking the writers why Character X had to die and I suspect they’d say that since X isn’t in any of the other films, X must have died, but that’s less than stupid if you accept that the SW universe is something larger than what’s so far been shown. Apparently it’s not, so X (and Y and Z and...) must die.
On a technical level the film is somewhat all right. I hate most of the camera work, which is often of the free-floating, hand-held variety. The action sequences are by-the-numbers, with nothing either terribly wrong or terrifically great. Several classic characters pop up via CGI; several are actually appropriate but for others it’s just awful. One at the film’s end is atrocious, but then, the very end of the film is entirely wrong. Bad edit, bad music, horrible CGI face, and a tone-deaf transition. Honest, the last moments of the film are too horrible for words.
Speaking of music, Michael Giacchino turns in a dull score. I am loathe to blame him because he generally does stellar work. Rumor has it that his original score was rejected and he was told to replace it with something more “Star Warsy.” The result is generic and forgettable, without a single musical note worth remembering other than the very first. Literally, the very first, which is a foreboding and ominous variation of the BAH that usually kicks off a Star Wars film. Those opening notes are fantastic and precisely the correct tone. Then it all goes horribly wrong.
Which is exactly what happened with the film. Here was an opportunity to show that the cinematic Star Wars universe was more than The Skywalker Family Saga. Here was an opportunity to weave a fantastic action adventure, a science fiction war thriller in the mold of The Guns of Navarone (a film I kept thinking about while watching R1).
Instead we got a stink bomb and the memory of lost opportunities.