Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feels torn between two extremes.
On one extreme, it is an epic war movie about a universe that is caught in turmoil. Through the lens of science-fantasy, Rogue One can tease out all manner of interesting ideas about the conflict at the heart of the Star Wars franchise. What does an interstellar war look like in the early years of the twenty-first century? What is the view of this epic confrontation from outside the cockpit of an X-Wing or the Millennium Falcon? There are points at which Rogue One almost plays as a war film that just happens to be set within the Star Wars universe.
On the other extreme, Rogue One often feels like a collection of deleted scenes intended to bridge Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith to Star Wars: Episode VI – A New Hope. The basic premise of the film involves the theft of the Death Star plans that propel the plot of A New Hope, which should be enough to connect it to the parent franchise. Instead, the film is saturated with cameos and callbacks. While it makes sense for a number of minor characters to overlap, Rogue One contorts to include two of the franchise’s biggest characters.
So Rogue One is trapped between being an exciting and exhilarating glimpse of an existing franchise from a new perspective, and feeling just a little bit too much like fan fiction. It is no surprise that the former is much more interesting than the latter.
The most interesting aspect of Rogue One is the sheer potential of the project. Freed from an “Episode” subtitle, there is a sense that Rogue One can play with one of the best-loved media franchises of all-time. It can take the existing framework of the Star Wars universe, that seems coded into the DNA of modern pop culture, and subvert or interrogate it. Imagine a spy movie playing with this world and its characters, or a heist movie unfolding on an epic scale. Imagine seeing the Star Wars universe at a remove from Jedi Knights and Sith Lords.
Star Wars is a monolithic part of popular culture. People know it inside and out, even beyond the fandom. Casual movie-goers recognise the iconography and the mythology. People who rarely go to the cinema can idly hum the theme music to themselves. Yoda and Darth Vader are go-to impressions that are easy to read, even if the impersonation itself is terrible. So the Star Wars franchise is part of the rich cultural tapestry, and something that can be tinkered with.
The big epic Star Wars films invite fans to speculate and wonder. The joy of George Lucas’ original creation was the skill with which a single line of dialogue could lead to hours of speculation from audience members. The universe seemed improbably vast, limitless in scope and yet perfectly formed. Watching Star Wars, it was fun to imagine dancing between the raindrops of continuity, to conjure up some sort of pop art version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to this science-fantasy epic.
Indeed, that was the best part of the infamous decision to scrap the “expanded universe” that had developed in novels and comics and video games around the film franchise. Those secondary and tertiary materials were not erased or diminished by that decision. Those stories about Admiral Thrawn or Prince Xizor did not cease to exist because they were deemed “out of continuity.” Fans who enjoyed those stories could still enjoy them, even if they were disappointed that the Star Wars franchise was no longer beholden to them.
Erasing the expanded universe from continuity was a good decision because it cleared out a whole host of incestuous clutter. When writing tie-in fiction or fan fiction, the impulse is always to build a universe inwards rather than outwards. There is always a desire to connect every meaningful event or character to a piece of continuity or history. Removing all of that material from the so-called “canon” allowed the production team in charge of the revitalised franchise to put their own stamp on events.
There is a lot of Rogue One that works very well in that regard. There are points (particularly in the first half) where director Gareth Edwards seems happy to have cast free of the expectations of one of the “big” or “main-line” franchise films. Early on, Rogue One establishes a number of sizeable formal departures from the Star Wars template. The music is slightly different from the regular overture. There is no title scroll. There are on-screen legends that help to establish key locations through text rather than blunt exposition.
These formal departures are small, but meaningful. Over the course of the first hour, Edwards establishes his own approach to the larger Star Wars universe. This is a film that is very much rooted in the background players. These characters are not “chosen ones” or “princesses.” They are footnotes in the larger franchise history. In this respect, it builds upon the most interesting storytelling choices of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.
At its best, Rogue One offers a view of the Star Wars universe from the ground floor. The movie features all manner of classic Star Wars iconography, but the scale seems somewhat larger. These events and these conflicts seem to happen at several levels about the heads of the primary characters. The Death Star drives the plot of the film, and is very much the best example of this. Variants and images of the Death Star have appeared in four of the seven Star Wars films, but Rogue One still finds a way to make the weapon look fresh and interesting.
Rogue One looks at the so-called “planet killer” from the surface of the planet. At one point, the Death Star rises over the surface of a planet like a moon. At another point, it positions itself so as to eclipse the sun. When the blast hits, the audience does not witness the destruction from the cold distance of space. Instead, the weapon is portrayed as something very much akin to a nuclear bomb. Two significant characters even get to make a stylised homage to the atomic shadows from Hiroshima or even to the work of Alan Moore and David Gibbons.
This is more than just a clever visual choice. It is a recurring theme of the film. Orson Krennic, the villain of the piece, is constantly framed as a non-entity. Ben Mendelsohn does good work in the role, but his low-key naturalistic delivery (which occasionally even borders on mumbling and grumbling) is consciously at odds with the more theatrical elocution associated with the franchise’s epic bad guys. Krennic is not Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine, and seems unlikely to be remembered in the same breath. But that is very much the point.
Indeed, the most interest aspect of Krennic’s characterisation is his ambition to play at a level beyond his ability. Krennic constantly yearns for the respect and admiration of those iconic bad guys. Testing the iconic weapon, he laments, “The least the Emperor or Lord Vader could do is be here.” Krennic repeatedly insists that his supervisors put in a good word for him with Emperor Palpatine. Those promotions for designing genocidal weapons don’t deliver themselves. Krennic is very much Imperial middle-management, which is in keeping with the aesthetic of the film.
There is an appeal to this approach. Rogue One feels like it might get away with delivering something a bit stranger than any of the more traditional Star Wars films. In particular, the first half of the movie suggests an interesting moral ambivalence to the whole saga. The morality of the Star Wars universe is generally quite clear-cut, in that the Rebels are the good guys who dress in bright colours and fight for vague ideals like freedom and democracy while the Empire dresses in black and acts like Nazis.
However, there is some interesting subtext to all of this that has never been properly explored. When George Lucas originally developed Star Wars, he imagined the Rebel Alliance as the Viet Cong and the Galactic Empire as the United States. That was a very charged allegory, even buried beneath the Flash Gordon aesthetic. The early years of the twenty-first century have only made the morality all the more intriguing. The Rebel Alliance are basically terrorists. More than that, the Jedi are religious fundamentalists. (Although the Empire are still pretty bad dudes.)
Rogue One teases this idea in the first hour, playing with the notion of the Rebel Alliance as sanitised terrorists. After all, the original Star Wars trilogy never has any concept of collateral damage or moral compromise. Our heroes are never forced to make tough decisions for pragmatic reasons. Rogue One imagine what a more grounded twenty-first century interpretation of that core conflict might look like. Rogue One features a Rebel Alliance that murders witnesses and assassinates collaborators, that bombs busy marketplaces and engages in torture.
Midway through the film, Rogue One consciously updates that subtle Vietnam metaphor for the War on Terror. The Empire is hard at work on a desert planet that was once home to the last of the Jedi Knights. Their interest in the planet seems primarily based upon ease of access to natural resources. A random rebel attack upon an Imperial convoy unfolds in broad daylight with little regard for civilian casualties and using improvised explosive devices. It is a thrilling sequence, primarily because it plays with audience sympathies and expectations.
Rogue One even dares to ask to about the moral authority from which these characters operate. Saw Gerrera is introduced as the Rebel Alliance’s counterpart to Darth Vader, a creature who was once a man but is now mostly machine. Disfigured and dismantled by war, his arms and legs are all mechanical like those of the iconic Sith Lord. “There’s not a lot of me left,” he confesses, taking a deep breath from his ventilator in order to cement the none-too-subtle parallels between Gerrera and Vader. Gerrera even tortures his captives. Although he does ask questions.
There is a recurring sense of the damage that war does to people, which is a refreshing approach to a franchise called Star Wars. More than any of the other films in the franchise, Rogue One is populated by broken things. Although Bodhi Rook is never fully developed, it is implied that the defector has been psychology scarred by his treatment at the hands of the rebels. The droid K-2SO is suggested to be psychologically unstable after being reprogrammed. The movie asks whether Cassian Andor is being dehumanised in a less literal manner than Saw Gerrera and Darth Vader.
Unfortunately, Rogue One shies away from these bold ideas. The more violent elements of the Rebel Alliance are explicitly as “extremists” who will not compromise with our heroes. There is a sense that Saw Gerrera has transformed into a Star Wars version of Colonel Kurtz and is not supposed to be representative of the movement as a whole. Indeed, the climax of Rogue One shies away from the more intriguing allegorical subtext in favour of a more conventional military confrontation that could easily have come from any other Star Wars film.
As it goes on, Rogue One begins to feel trapped by the expectations of its multi-billion dollar franchise. As the movie approaches (and then enters) its third act, it becomes less of an interesting new perspective on a very old media property and becomes more of a conventional Star Wars narrative. The best shots and sequences in Rogue One are those that offer a new way of looking at a familiar property. The least interesting shots and sequences are the direct lifts, like the sentry towers or the hangar bay at the rebel base on Yavin.
Within the franchise, the Death Star has become a fetish object that has inspired two fairly expensive (and deeply flawed) tributes from the Empire and the First Order. However, Rogue One has the luxury of actually featuring scenes on the original Death Star, and it recreates some of those most iconic beats with a slavish devotion to detail. Given the iconography of the Galactic Empire, there is something rather strange and disconcerting about the care that has been taken in recreating certain sequences from A New Hope. It feels almost like a grim ritual or invocation.
One of the most technically impressive aspects of Rogue One is the emphasis that the film places upon the character of Grand Moff (or “General”) Tarkin as played by a CGI recreation of Peter Cushing. The computer animation is very good, and it benefits from the fact that no member of the Galactic Empire could ever be faulted for having the sort of cold dead eyes that CGI animation still struggles to avoid. Of course, including Tarkin opens up all manner of interesting continuity related fun, with the movie consciously blurring the nature of his relationship to Vader.
Towards the end of the film, more and more classic character begin to cameo. It would be churlish to discuss those in any great depth, except to acknowledge that most of them are completely unnecessary. Several of these recurring franchise characters could be exorcised from the film with no real loss to plot integrity. If anything, the movie would be streamlined and rendered more effective. Rogue One devotes time and energy to answering questions that nobody ever really cared about, such as “what happened to Red Five before Luke Skywalker took it as a call sign?”
These sequences frequently feel like deleted scenes or web-only content, awkwardly winking at the audience in a way that distracts from the story being told. These characters are so iconic and so familiar that their presence exerts a strange gravity over the film. There are points at which it seems like the primary cast of Rogue One are having the movie stolen out from under them, particularly at the end of the film once all of their character arcs have been resolved and the script insists on offering a clumsy epilogue following a secondary player.
This is a shame, as Rogue One would undoubtedly benefit from paying more attention to its expansive cast. Star Wars has never been a franchise particularly rich in characterisation on the page, with the success of characters like Han Solo or Darth Vader owing more to the combination of performance and production design. The franchise tends to deal in archetypes, and Rogue One understands that. Like Luke and Anakin and Rey before her, Jyn Erso is a big bundle of daddy issues and flawed (and fated) surrogates tied up in a Campbellian bow.
However, Felicity Jones does great in the part. Jones has wonderfully expressive eyes that seem to convey more emotion than the script might really justify in a given moment. Jones is ably supported by a cast of actors who try their hardest to flesh out archetypes into characters. Diego Luna plays Cassian Andor as a man struggling with guilt of what he has done in service of his ideals. Riz Ahmed plays Bodhi Rook as soldier struggling to atone for his complicity in the construction of a weapon of untold destructive potential.
However, these characters frequently feel suffocated by the winks and nods at the larger franchise. Every time that a major established character appears, it seems to suck the air out of the room. It frequently feels like the ensemble are being slowly nudged out of their own film. It is frustrating, because Rogue One has a story and a cast that is strong enough to carry this sort of adventure to its logical conclusion. All the franchise-building scaffolding outside of that story is ultimately a distraction.
The Force Awakens arguably got away with this indulgent nostalgia because it was the first Star Wars film in over a decade. More than that, The Force Awakens was consciously intended to hark back to the original trilogy and to wash away the after-taste of the much-maligned prequel films. As such, the plot homages and cameos that littered The Force Awakens made a great deal of sense in the context of that particular film. In fact, they were a large part of the appeal.
Unfortunately, Rogue One does not have that excuse. The basic plot of the film should be continuity enough for this story. One of the primary appeals of the Star Wars universe as introduced in A New Hope is the sheer vastness of that fictional construct. The Star Wars universe feels expansive and developed, it seems like life goes on even outside of the individual frame or beyond the view of a given character. It is a universe of infinite possibilities and wonder, full of characters who have their own stories to tell.
The biggest problem with Rogue One is an unwillingness to let these characters tell their own story without bluntly tying that narrative directly into the tale that we all know and love so well. These choices make the Star Wars franchise seem so much smaller than it once was, and even more incestuous than that time in A New Hope when Luke was really into Leia.