The first spin-off from the Star Wars universe, Star Wars: Rogue One, is a largely unsatisfying mess about the origins of the Death Star. Actually, it’s not about the origins of the Death Star, but about obtaining the architectural blueprints. If this sounds dry and uninteresting it’s only because it’s dry and uninteresting. Flat characters scurry from planet to planet, occasionally stopping to give boring speeches or have uninspired laser battles. It appears that the renewed sense of fun (re)awakened in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is dormant once again.
Rogue One has a single mission objective: Bridge the gap between the Star Wars prequels and A New Hope. It accomplishes this mission with such ruthless efficiency that there’s scarcely little time for anything else. To ensure that every possible loose end is tied off, director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters) skimps on small luxuries like character development and escalating tension.
The Star Wars universe has always been content with wafer-thin archetypes, but these characters are like absentminded scribblings on a cartoonist’s notepad. Our hero is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones); an orphan girl whose father (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant scientist, is forcibly enlisted by the Empire to build a new weapon system. Abandoned and alone, Jyn is adopted by the Rebel leader, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who, apparently, teaches her to fight, shoot, and kick all manner of butt. We don’t see any of these potentially interesting scenes because it might slow down the plot.
Fast-forward 15 years and a jaded, disinterested Jyn is living on the outskirts of society. She spends her time between stealing things and sulking in jail. A Rebel pilot named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) gives Jyn a simple choice; help us find your father so he can reveal the Empire’s secrets or go back to the pokey forever. It’s not exactly La Femme Nikita, but it’s an acceptable motivation to start raising hell around the galaxy.
There’s really no polite way to say this… Jyn is a zero. She has no discernible personality or goals. We feel no connection to her whatsoever, despite the considerable acting chops of Felicity Jones. She exists, like everything else in Rogue One, only to further the plot. Jyn feels like the young Sarah Connor from Terminator Genisys, who knows how to do everything because fate (and the screenwriters) deems it necessary. She sure looks spiffy in that flight suit, though.
What follows is basically, ‘The Magnificent Seven in Space!’ A group of ragtag Rebels unite to put a burr under the Empire’s saddle until it’s time for them to go out in a blaze of glory. Only, we don’t spend enough time with these characters to understand their individual foibles, strengths, or weaknesses. It makes for a decidedly passive viewing experience, in which we simply watch things happen without feeling any particular way about it. There’s no sense of adventure, only an air of inevitability.
Rogue One is a puzzle comprised of only corner pieces. Each scene dutifully fulfills its purpose, with anything that resembles ambiguity and tension being jettisoned in favor of easy solutions and convenient melodrama. Every plan works to perfection… unless it needs to end with a tearful goodbye. If the heroes need a security code in order to land on the planet’s surface, you can bet that the code will work… but only after we hear how terrible things will be if it doesn’t work. If there are 90 Stormtroopers to dispatch, you can bet the first 89 will be dispatched like proverbial flies… until the 90th kills someone of consequence (but not too much consequence). There are no surprises or thrills here, just a puppet show that makes no attempt to hide the strings.
Nearly every line of dialogue in the second half of Rogue One consists of characters re-stating their objectives. It’s repetitive, boring, and unintentionally hilarious. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that reiterating their purpose over and over again could mask the complete lack of drama? On a positive note; there’s a great drinking game to be played around the phrase, “We need to lower that shield!”
All is not lost for true Star Wars fans, however. Rogue One looks the part of a Star Wars movie. The planetary landscapes are diverse; from a rain swept Imperial fortress that looks like something out of Mordor, to a lush, desert oasis that resembles an exclusive Middle East island resort. The CGI and practical effects are seamlessly blended, with many familiar Star Wars spaceships featured prominently. There are also cameos sprinkled throughout, including a certain iconic villain who feels disappointingly tame some 40 years after he first thrilled audiences.
Whereas Star Wars: The Force Awakens could be forgiven its unoriginality because it was a soft re-make of previous classics, Star Wars: Rogue One is more like the gooey connective tissue between those classic films. It’s too grimy and relentlessly bleak to be any fun, and lacks the substance and drama to be taken seriously. Those willing to remove their blinders are going to find a disappointing sci-fi actioner that has little merit beyond its famous pedigree.