Along with the new trilogy of Star Wars “episodes” that began with The Force Awakens last year, a series of stand-alone anthology films are also being produced. The first of these is Rogue One, a prequel set immediately before the events of A New Hope. As a more casual Star Wars fan, I was curious as to what I would think of this film – but really, I might have liked it more if I were a bigger Star Wars fan, because as a film by itself, it wasn’t that great.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is being taken to prison for aimless crimes against the Empire when she is unexpectedly freed by the Rebel Alliance. It turns out that Jyn’s father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist who was forced to work for the Empire years before, has sent a secret message in the hands of a defected pilot. Along with Alliance officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Jyn is sent to find the pilot, who has fallen into the hands of an independent rebel she used to know: this triggers a series of events which reveals that the Empire are building a planet-destroying superweapon, the Death Star, and sends Jyn and her allies on a mission to acquire its blueprints.
This is another film where it took a few minutes to figure out the best plot summary for this review, as the opening act is quite confused, going in a number of different directions. But when these started coming together, the story didn’t become any more satisfying. The problem is that we already know what this film is about and what the protagonists are going to do: acquire the plans for the Death Star, which Princess Leia is transporting at the beginning of Episode IV. But there’s about an hour and twenty minutes of messing about with other business before anybody actually sets out on this particular mission. Through the second act in particular, I was mostly feeling bored and impatient, because what takes place in the meantime is stretched out and not very interesting. In the third act, Rogue One almost becomes a different film in terms of tone and focus. The action in the climax – involving massive Imperial walkers, and stormtroopers who are just as useless as ever – is pretty cool; unfortunately, this action goes on for a long time and I was already quite tired of the film by then, so I soon became fidgety again.
Another big weakness is the characters. Of the protagonists, only Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO get enough exposure for the audience to really know them; the other main team members – a blind Force user, a guy with a big gun, and the defected pilot – are so underdeveloped that I wasn’t even sure of their names. But with the exception of K-2SO (more on him later), I didn’t really care about any of the protagonists; the film opts for less black-and-white morality than other Star Wars films, which could make things more complex and intriguing under other circumstances, but ultimately works against this particular story. Jyn and Cassian are not terribly likeable – at least in the first two acts – and the Rebels that we see are grim, cynical and capable of atrocities of their own. In The Force Awakens and the original trilogy, I had no trouble rooting for the right people; here, I spent most of the film wondering what made these guys so much more preferable to the Empire.
So what about the good stuff? The film does have one excellent character in the form of K-2SO, the strategic analysis droid who provides most of the humour with his brutal honesty and his fondness for pessimistic predictions. (“I will go with you,” he tells Jyn at one point, which seems heartwarming until he adds, “Cassian says I have to.”) There are some good moments here and there, such as when the Empire first try out their new Death Star; it doesn’t destroy any planets this time round, but what it does do is quite devastating enough. The film has all the same rich environments and background characters that we associate with Star Wars; I liked how the structures occupied by the Rebels on Yavin 4 resemble the Mayan temples at Tikal, as that was the original filming location for the Rebel base in Episode IV. (Here, of course, it’s all CGI.) And there are a few unexpected cameos that fans will probably appreciate.
As seen in the trailers, Darth Vader himself turns up; he only appears in a couple of scenes, but packs plenty of awesomeness into what little screentime he has. Not only that, but certain characters from Episode IV – who could not be portrayed by their original actors due to age or death – are actually recreated with CGI faces. In these cases, the CGI itself is actually pretty convincing – enough for the camera to linger on – but it was more the concept that unnerved me than any Uncanny Valley effect. We’ve already seen Audrey Hepburn revived to star in a Galaxy commerical, but I’m wondering if this film will encourage more recreations of deceased actors, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.
It seems like heresy to say it, but I actually preferred the prequel trilogy to Rogue One; for all their problems, I never felt so bored or restless watching them. Really, this story would have worked better as a short. Rating: 2.5/5.