A rogue band of resistance fighters unite for a mission to steal the Death Star plans and bring a new hope to the galaxy.
Rogue One, the second Star Wars movie since the Lucasfilm studio was bought by Disney, is a film of two very distinct parts. The first is basically what we’ve come to expect from a Star Wars movie: our rough-around-the-edges lead gets drawn into something bigger than she is, skips from planet to planet gathering a motley crew of humans and comedy robots (no aliens this time) and eventually finds something that will give her life meaning. The second is a old-fashioned war movie that manages to combine the World War II in space aesthetic of the traditional Star Wars films with a vaguely Vietnam-era looking ground conflict. It seems unlikely that many viewers will enjoy both parts equally; for most the back half will be where things really come together, if only because when you cut parts out of battle scenes it’s a lot harder to notice the joins.
A long time ago, scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) took his wife and child and ran away to hide out on a mud farm. Not very successfully: the film begins with Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and a batch of stormtroopers turning up and demanding he return to work on a mysterious superweapon. Krennic isn’t the type to take no for an answer; flash forward a number of years and word of his superweapon has reached Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). It seems an Imperial pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) has defected with word of what Galen’s been working on, but he’s fallen into the hands of extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) – the same extremist to whom Galen entrusted his daughter. Now all grown up, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a thief laying low and believing in nothing; when Andor breakers her out of prison to help him get to Gerrera, her interest in anything he has to offer is close to nil.
What follows seems intended to run on two tracks; Jyn’s development from nihilist to believer in the rebel cause, and the creation of a Dirty-Dozen style band, including the blind not-quite-a-Jedi monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heavily armed buddy Baze (Jiang Wen) to steal the Death Star plans that will come in so handy in the original Star Wars. But word is that extensive reshoots under the supervision of scriptwriter Tony Gilroy took place after director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) delivered his version, and it seems like those reshoots may have been designed to soften much of the film’s already limited character development.
Andor talks about having done bad things for the greater good, but – aside from killing a source before he can get them captured – that’s as far as it goes, which leaves the big character moment when he fails to obey a kill order as something of a fizzle. Bodhi says his defection is an attempt to atone for a dark past that’s never mentioned again, and while Chirrut and Baze’s motivation for joining the rebels is left annoyingly vague, it’s not hard to figure out that guards of a sacred religious site who saw that site blown up by an evil empire wouldn’t join the empire’s fan club.
While that may have been too on-the-nose for Disney, some political commentary (inadvertently?) makes it through. The vision of the Empire as a collection of back-stabbers – the evil office politics are a high point, with Krennic dealing both with Governor Tarkin (a not quite perfect CGI Peter Cushing) and Lord Vader himself (voiced by James Earl Jones) – who are nevertheless all committed to a singular vision while the Rebels are split into multiple factions that largely argue amongst themselves seems depressingly accurate at the tail end of 2016.
With the script focused elsewhere, the task of fleshing out the characters is largely left to the cast. For the most part they struggle. One of the areas where The Force Awakens received near-universal praise was the casting; this presents the flip side of that approach, where a group of often excellent actors lack the very specific form of charisma required to bring sketchy characters to life against such a busy backdrop. Mendelsohn is playing pretty much the only character to get even a small range of emotions, and he takes full advantage; his murmured “beautiful” at seeing the Death Star in action is the sole moment of joy in the entire film.
It’s a real shame the character side of things is so weak, because otherwise (some muddy plotting early on aside) this is a strong addition to the franchise. Edwards has a knack for images of surprising and ominous beauty, often involving the Death Star; even for a series known for its massive explosions this features a number of all-time greats. The numerous battle scenes are well handled (though having the leads constantly fleeing locations before they explode becomes a grim running joke) with a real sense of scale to them, thanks in part to Edwards’ skill at creating realistic fantasy settings. Unlike The Force Awakens, here the various planets feel like real locations, and when the characters falter this texture is what keeps things interesting. Like the Death Star itself, Rogue One is an often stunning and awe-inspiring spectacle - with a fatal flaw at its heart.