Is Rogue One a good film? That was the question I asked myself once the credits rolled on the first Star Wars story, out this time last year. The most positive thing I can say about Gareth Edwards first foray into the SW franchise one year on is that it just about makes a case for its existence. It’s tonally different from the previous films in the Star Wars Saga, and it’s incredibly brave to have an ending where all the lead characters die for their cause. Its central message of the rediscovery of hope in the darkest time the galaxy has known is fully realised and culturally relevant, but the package it comes in is full of holes. Not just holes that Mads Mikkelsen put there on purpose. No, Rogue One, despite its stunning visuals, fine performances (with notable exceptions), and the aforementioned strong themes, isn’t a very good film.
You don’t have to look to hard for valid criticism of Rogue One. The fact that it exists primarily to plug one of pop cultures biggest plot holes is reason enough for cynicism. It’s also unclear just how much of the finished film can be credited to Garth Edwards thanks to the now seemingly Hollywood-mandated reshoots, with scenes that were in the trailers getting left on the cutting room floor; my concerns are a little deeper than that. For me, Rogue One’s failures are rooted in the most basic building block of any story: character.
When it comes to character, Rogue One is at a disadvantage. From A New Hope to The Force Awakens, audiences always have more than a single movie to get invested in the franchises main characters. Luke, Leia, and Han have had four to five movies each over the course of r a few decades for audiences to get invested in them. Rey, Fin, and Poe Dameron have The Last Jedi to further progress their stories, and presumably a third movie beyond that, too. Rogue One only has 2 hours and 30 minutes to introduce its misfit bunch of heroes, its bureaucratic villain, and its setting of a Galaxy in turmoil in a way we haven’t quite seen before. All while providing a host of references, cameos, and horrible CGI versions of past characters to boot.
In the case of Director Orson Krennic, the films villain, Rogue One went the easy but effective route. Ben Mendehlson is like Gary Oldman in the 90s: the go-to shorthand for blockbuster villainy. On those terms, Rogue One plays a blinder. He may be the most filled-in character of the whole piece. We know his motivations: to build the ultimate weapon that will consolidate the Empire’s rule, which should make him indispensable to the Emperor. The fact that he is killed by the Death Star, screwed over by Grand Moff Tarkin in a power move that Malcom Tucker would be proud of, is a fantastic bit of irony and solidifies his place as one of the great villains of the franchise.
What about the heroes? Out of Rogue One’s protagonists it’s Diego Luna as Cassian Andor that is the most fully-formed and feels like the true leading man, with the strongest arc out of the whole movie. His role in the Rebellion perfectly captures the ambiguous morality of this war. Everything you need to know about him is in his introduction: he kills an allied informant in order to make his own escape, and the need to keep his newfound information secure, much easier. His arc throughout the film is to find hope in the cause that has turned him into a blunt instrument.
The rest of the characters don’t fare as well. Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi is just a defecting pilot. All we know about him is that Galen Erso convinced him to defect, and that he’s an imperial pilot. The meat of the character is provided by Ahmed’s manic performance, but the script gives him all of three lines to thinly surmise his motivations for defecting, which surely should be a key part of his character. On paper, Bodhi is one of the film’s more interesting characters, but here he’s boiled down to his function with a hand-wave towards motivation that’s never satisfactorily explored. Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) kind of just tag along, with their relationship to each other left a little vague. Are they friends? Are they a couple? I can guess, but the film gives us very little, and the ambiguity reads as confusion instead of interpretation.
At least these characters are performed well, the same cannot be said about Jyn Erso and Saw Gerrera. Forrest Whittaker is a brilliant actor, but he is prone to a shoddy performance now and then. Saw is firmly within this category. His cyborg persona and obvious madness do give him a cool parallel, with his breathing apparatus a clear symbol of his status as the Rebellion’s Darth Vader. It’s all undone every time Whittaker opens his mouth and booms out another catastrophically cheesy line reading. I laughed when he died. Let’s leave it at that.
While its great that another modern Star Wars film is led by a woman, Jyn is no Rey. This isn’t entirely Felicity Jones fault – I’ve seen her in other movies and she is always excellent, but the script doesn’t give her much to do besides the occasional scowl. There is also the show-don’t-tell problem. Throughout Rogue One we get to know Jyn by having other characters explain to her what kind of person she is. In The Force Awakens we see what Rey is capable of, with her skillset on show before anyone talks to her. That’s how you introduce a character. Jyn is defined by her father figures rather than herself; we never really see what she did between her father being taken to her appearance in the movie. She’s so defined by other characters that the end of acts one and two culminate with the death of Saw and her father, and these feel more in service to their arcs then to Jyn’s.
Jyn is a passive character, moved from plot to plot with no real agency of her own. Great characters progress through choices. Luke could have finished his training with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, but chose to save his friends and face Darth Vader when he wasn’t ready. Rey could have sold BB-8 for half a years’ worth of food, and saved herself a lot of trouble. Han didn’t have to come back at the end of A New Hope to ensure that Luke could take that Mikkelsen-made shot.
One of Jyn’s only real character moments comes when she dives in to save a child in the attack on the city of Jedha, and it feels trite and cheap and an attempt by the filmmakers to assuage her apparent unlikability instead of having the nerve to go all-out and make her a truly morally questionable leading character. Jyn makes choices that feel jarring with her character, simply because all the character we’ve seen of her has been defined by other people for Jyn. The beginning of her character really feels like it come when Galen dies, and that comes so deep into the movie that it leaves little time to build Jyn as her own, strongly-defined person. And, considering that she’s the lead, that’s a problem.
Rogue One isn’t a terrible film, its better than the prequels, and Gareth Edwards is a great visual filmmaker, but everyone had to die before a gave the remotest shit. Also, Darth Vader could have used the Force to swipe those plans in the final scenes. He was just being sloppy.
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By Kevin Boyle