Just how much storytelling fuel is left in the Star Wars tank? Judging by the safe and market-savvy retread that was last year’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it’s running on fumes. Given an entire galaxy to play with, that film stuck to well-known paths. Still, hope remains for Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: Star Wars Story, opening this week. The entire saga is, after all, premised on hope.
As Rogue One sets out to roam the property that Lucas sold to the Disney entertainment strip-mining complex, it turns out that hope is somewhat — but not entirely — well placed. The movie is initially set apart from J. J. Abrams’s Episode VII by the loudly deployed subtitle, “A Star Wars Story”. This leaves open the possibility for endless semantic wrangling over the difference between “Story” and “Episode”. Are Wookies confined only to the former? How come Darth Vader appears in both? Are we destined to see Rogue Seven: A Star Wars Bedtime Lullaby?
Beyond such questions, this holiday season outer space war movie offers a whole new squad of characters. This is a risky move for any studio executive who remembers the grim green-screen efforts of Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, and a certain clumsy Gungan. While Edwards doesn’t quite have Abrams’ knack for crafting zippy ensembles, he does assemble his dramatic team with more aplomb than would have been suggested by his work on Monsters and Godzilla, both evincing more interest in beasts than people.
Planted in between Episodes III (Revenge of the Sith) and IV (A New Hope, or just plain Star Wars for regular folks), Rogue One at first sprints a good distance on its own merits, with nary a Jedi or original trilogy cast member to be seen. It’s an origin story for the Rebel detachment that stole the plans to destroy the first Death Star, starting with a familiar orphaning tragedy at the hands of a cruel Imperial officer. This leaves the grown-up protagonist Jyn (Felicity Jones) just cynical and bereft enough to make her hold out a respectable length of time before agreeing to assist the Rebel Alliance in getting those secret plans. Jyn’s backstory also helps answer a question that’s plagued fans ever since 1977: why did the Empire spend all that time and all those resources building a moon-sized space station only to leave one rather glaring and easily exploited vulnerability?
Jyn’s ethnically mixed gang of fellow rogues — a notable counterpoint to what looks like an all-white Empire — is an engaging lot. That’s true even if they’re for the most part jammed together with little organic interaction by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s schematic screenplay. As defected Imperial pilot Bodhi and morally compromised Rebel spy Cassian, Riz Ahmed and Diego Luna play fractured heroes in a seemingly hopeless war. Like most any guerrilla campaign, the Rebel Alliance’s fight against overwhelming forces isn’t a clean one. This truism is illuminated by Cassian’s haunted speech about how he and his fellow assassins and saboteurs (previously kept to the shadows so that Luke and Han could white-knight around) for some form of redemptive victory to make their sins worthwhile. Forest Whitaker’s raspy portrayal of Jyn’s onetime mentor and schismatic Rebel extremist Saw underscores the film’s understanding of war as a dirty business and not the surgical struggle portrayed in the first trilogy.
Like Lucas, Edwards outsources a good deal of his comic relief to the droids. A reliably droll member of the Whedonverse, Alan Tudyk voices their gloomy droid sidekick, K-250, once of the Empire and now reprogrammed for Rebel purposes. K-250 was also apparently given a sarcasm chip and a complete set of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, all the better to model his behavior on that of Marvin the Paranoid Android.
Rounding out the rag-tag band are a pair of onetime temple guardians, Baze (Wen Jiang) and Chirrut (Donnie Yen), who bring impressive firepower and combat acumen. As the blind martial arts master who can take out an entire squad of Stormtroopers with only a wooden staff and a stubborn non-Jedi’s belief in the Force, Chirrut should have been the eye-rolling addition to the cast. But Yen’s engaging portrayal makes him the star of group.
The closer Edwards gets to the climax, though, the more he loses sight of these characters. At first, Rogue One seems to enjoy spending time on a whole new batch of moons and planets we haven’t seen before, reveling in the clutter and clamor of far-flung settlements where anti-Imperial sentiments fester. But the film is bogged down in engineering the complex maneuverings of spy games, dogfights, and the most sprawling Rebel-versus-Empire land battle seen since the opening of The Empire Strikes Back. Later scenes in Rogue One produce a few more problems, no matter how many thrills one might be getting from seeing X-Wings taking out AT-ATs or hearing James Earl Jones delivering Darth Vader’s orders in his undertaker’s basso profundo.
First is the klutzily animated recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. This needlessly steals scenery from the film’s perfectly serviceable Imperial villain, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn); worse, it sets a grim standard for other films to venture into the same kind of digital grave-robbing. Then there’s the heavy-handed way every story element bends as though it were being yanked by a tractor beam towards providing linkage with the initial events in Episode IV.
It’s probably interesting to some viewers to see exactly what happened just before Darth Vader stormed onto that Rebel cruiser looking for Princess Leia. But it’s not worth essentially jettisoning an entire film’s worth of characters to get to. After all, everybody knows the Death Star blows up.