Those of you who saw 2014’s Godzilla will recognize director Gareth Edwards as a man who knows how to shoot an action set piece. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes a line from the opening crawl of the original Star Wars -“Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon”- into a feature length adventure detailing precisely how these spies managed to acquire said plans. How much you enjoy this movie as a whole, and whether or not you find to be a “good” movie, will depend largely on your relationship to the ever growing Star Wars franchise. One thing is certain, though. The set pieces, particularly in the last third of the film, provide some of the best filmmaking this operatic saga has ever seen.
Edwards’s most fundamental asset as a bankable filmmaker is his ability to make things look cool. And I mean really cool. This was apparent in Godzilla, and it’s apparent in how he finds infinite ways to present Star Wars iconography from a point of view we haven’t seen before. Looking at spaceships, planets, and the ominously famous Death Star from up, down, and sideways perspectives I suspect fans had been dreaming about since they had their first encounter with these movies. That’s a good start in and on itself, but thankfully the director’s eye for visuals is put to use with more varied purposes than simply “making shit look dope.”
The commercial goal here is pretty transparently to keep the brand name high and make lots of money. The artistic goal, to somehow deepen the world of the original movies. To explicitly explore the “wars” aspect of the saga’s title. To consider how this Rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire would affect the lives of the people on the ground, to consider the sacrifice and the messiness of life during wartime. To make the Star Wars universe equivalent of The Battle of Algiers, to explore in more nuanced and realistic fashion what being at war in a galaxy far, far away would be like.
I’m not sure how to feel about this approach to introduce darkness and realism to these movies. I fell in love with Star Wars when I was a kid, and in my opinion, the franchise should respect its place as an epic adventure that manages to rule our culture the way it does thanks to the overwhelming response it elicits in children. Rogue One is very clearly trying to go for a more mature audience (as far as caring about spaceships and robots can be considered a mature activity). Whether or not I feel comfortable with this decision from a philosophical perspective, I must admit that I had a hell of a blast watching this movie.
There was definitely something satisfying about seeing a familiar (fictional) world be explored from a distinctively different perspective. This is another front in which Edwards and his team deserve to be praised. They reconstruct the world of Star Wars as a tactile, grounded environment. Leaving behind the sheen and computer-generated excess of most science fiction blockbusters (including the George Lucas directed prequels) in favor of real-world locals. The movie opens in a uniquely dewy desert landscape that I must assume is Iceland, then moves to a crowded desert city (which explicitly evokes recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria), and culminates in a tropical beach (which explicitly evokes the Pacific theater of World War II). Characters get to be part of these environments, and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), makes the most to make these places feel real.
Those are the sort of decisions that make Rogue One the most visually exciting and carefully considered Star Wars movie since the immaculately beautiful The Empire Strikes Back (give or take the mythical first act of last year’s The Force Awakens). On other fronts, however, the movie is less successful. As a piece of screenwriting, it cannot be described as anything but a mess. There were reports earlier this year that Disney ordered the production team to come back for reshoots after principal photography had wrapped. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the original cut of this movie was very, very different from what we got in theaters.
I assume, however, that most of the re-writing and re-editing were used to reshape the first and second acts of the movie, which are the most plot-heavy and not coincidentally least effective. As far as plot is concerned, the movie focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a tough young woman who is tapped by the Rebel Alliance to help them find her father (Mads Mikkelsen), the engineer responsible for building the Death Star. Even though she is joined by a ragtag group of racially diverse warriors (including Diego Luna and Donnie Yen), she remains the protagonist, and the one character with an arc. She goes from an uninvolved lone wolf who survives on the fringes of the Empire, to a dedicated hero willing to sacrifice her life for a cause bigger than herself.
The character transformation doesn’t work that well. Very few of the character bits do, honestly, thanks in large part to a structure that jumps from planet to planet, follows many different characters and seems only half-interested in fleshing out their inner lives and motivations. There are three credited editors in this movie, as well as a fourth person credited for “additional editing”, which is never a good sign. I suspect the movie might’ve been more effective with less time committed to exploring familial relationships and more time devoted to the process of pulling off an impossible mission. Less hero’s journey and more heist movie.
At this point I’ve talked too much about the movie that could’ve been and not enough about the movie that actually exists. And before I go on to the strongest part of the movie, I do have to address what is probably the most disappointing decision in the film, and the one element that seems to be in total contradiction to Edwards’s vision for a visceral, spies of war adventure. If you remember the original Star Wars movie, then you’ll know the Imperial Commander in charge of the Death Star was one Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the late Peter Cushing in what is probably the best performance in any Star Wars movie. Grand Moff Tarkin not only appears, but has a substantial and integral role in Rogue One. And the character is played (in a way) by the late Peter Cushing.
Instead of casting a contemporary actor who looks like Cushing, or try to make his role as small as possible, the filmmakers decide to “revive” Grand Moff Tarkin by creating a computer generated image of Peter Cushing. It’s a ghastly decision that strikes all sorts of wrong notes in all sorts of different ways. Not only does this show immense disrespect to the memory of Cushing, it shows a complete lack of respect for the concept of humanity on the part of the Disney Corporation who has deemed the value of Tarkin as a piece of intellectual property to be greater than the value of Peter Cushing as a professional, an artist, and a human being.
But it’s not only the extra-textual implications of the technique that are problematic. It is a technological gamble that simply doesn’t pay off. It is immensely distracting to see a creature right out of the uncanny valley interact with actual human beings. Our brains cannot pretend that this character is anything but a creepy-looking cartoon. Bring in everything else, and not only can you not think of anything else while watching the Tarkin sequences, you often find yourself still thinking about this misguided decision during whatever scene follows his appearances. If there ever was a thing that took me out of a movie, this was it.
And yet, despite slapdash screenplays and computerized resurrections, once Rogue One reaches its final act, and our heroes do go on their final mission to retrieve the plans to the Death Star from an Imperial base, the movie doesn’t just fly, it fucking soars.
This is when Gareth Edwards shows what he’s made of. This is one of the most satisfyingly climactic action sequences in a blockbuster film I have ever seen. The sense of scale, or space, of direction, it is all precise, and it is constantly moving forward without missing a beat. In the midst of the mayhem, Edwards finds moments to show us the dopest shit he can imagine. Taking the fantasies of every kid who played with Star Wars spaceships as a kid and making them a reality. You can call it a very expensive exercise in fan fiction, but what an exercise! What is even more impressive, is the final moments of the film, which connect directly to the opening moments of the 1977 feature film Star Wars, and somehow manage what almost every prequel fails to do. It imbues the original movie with a newly found sense of urgency, and depth.
I would go back to the theater just to watch that third act again. It was something.
Grade: 7 out of 10