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‘Rogue One’ Review: The First ‘Star Wars’ Spinoff Is a Scrappy Space Adventure That Plays Things Painfully Safe

Despite a galaxy of potential and a number of killer moments, Gareth Edwards' "Star Wars" side story feels forced.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

“Rogue One”

Disney/LucasFilm

The opening scene of Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One” is exhilarating.

It begins with a gorgeous panoramic vista of a remote and distant planet, a magical place where the ocean nudges up against a fog-swaddled valley. An angular, bird-like aircraft pierces the gray horizon and lands on the leafy ground below. For those who live in this place, the ship’s arrival doesn’t appear to be entirely unexpected — a scraggly fugitive named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is seen whispering four ominous words to his wife: “He’s come for us.”

A phalanx of soldiers step on to the grass, their leader, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) urging them forward. Snarls of wind kick up the white hem of his Imperial cloak in a wide shot that combines the tactile beauty of George Lucas’ original trilogy with the mythic Western portent that defined the first third of “The Force Awakens” (or “Once Upon a Time in the West,” for that matter). The dialogue is terse and electric; the characters brim with pathos that seems worthy of the majestic world they inhabit. This is “Star Wars” not as we know it, but as we remember it — this is “Star Wars” as we’ve always wished it to be. The possibilities are endless. The potential is as infinite as the stars in the galaxy. Finally, a “Star Wars” movie that doesn’t have to be responsible to the rest of them.

Correction: Finally, a “Star Wars” movie that shouldn’t have been responsible to the rest of them.

 

There is, you will soon come to learn, no compelling narrative reason for “Rogue One” to exist. A spirited but agonizingly safe attempt to expand cinema’s most holy blockbuster franchise and keep the wheels greased between proper installments, this scrappy first “Star Wars Anthology” is ultimately just a glorified excuse to retcon some sense into one of the silliest things about the original. Remember how bizarre it was that Darth Vader’s planet-killing Death Star had a weak spot that made the entire doomsday device vulnerable to a single well-placed shot? Well, here’s an 135-minute movie that has no purpose other than to explain the reason for that architectural oversight.

Set in the formative stretch of time between the events of 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” and 1977’s “A New Hope,” “Rogue One” has been reverse-engineered to serve as connective tissue between two separate trilogies of the ever-expanding “Star Wars” universe. It tells the story of a ragtag group of resistance fighters (what!) who band together to steal the blueprints of the Death Star and ultimately relay the specifics of its vulnerability to Princess Leia. At the center of this motley crew is Galen’s daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), indistinguishable from the bland and plucky heroine of Episode VII save for her privileged disillusionment — Jyn, who fears that her father sold his soul to the Empire, doesn’t believe that the future is worth fighting for (because she’s never had to fight for it).

“You don’t have a problem seeing the Imperial flag waving?” someone asks her. “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up,” comes her clever reply.

READ MORE: Riz Ahmed On Why His Diverse Star Wars Spinoff Is A Different Kind Of Franchise Film

Jyn’s transition from apathetic spectator to hardened rebel is the heart and soul of the movie, the meat of its turgid second act, but Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s script is too busy connecting the dots of the film’s greater purpose to give their protagonist the trajectory she deserves. Instead, they surround her with a colorful cast of characters, all of whom demand more love and attention than the movie is willing to give them.

Diego Luna is a bit lost between archetypes, but he’s charming enough as the Rebel Alliance Intelligence officer tasked with using Jyn as bait. Riz Ahmed makes the most of his screen time as an Imperial defector, convincingly over his head but true to his heart. Jiang Wen and the legendary Donnie Yen are exquisite additions to the crew, respectively playing a freelance assassin and a blind Jedi zealot who wields a staff like a live-action Yoda — it’s unforgivable how little attention they’re paid during the final firefight, how they’re all affect and no soul. Best of the new additions is K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), an Imperial droid who’s been stolen and reprogrammed by the Rebels. Once a ruthless enforcer, now a droll bot with killer comic timing, he’s as delightful and alive as any animated character you could find in a Disney film.

Ben Mendelsohn Rogue One

“Rogue One”

Lucasfilm, Jonathan Olley

How these space cowboys come together is neither interesting nor important, but following along as they collide with each other makes for a fun travelogue of intergalactic hotspots (some of which blow up in uniquely satisfying ways). No “Star Wars” director has shot this world as lovingly as Edwards does — he never manages to conjure a setpiece as massive and majestic as the ones that highlight his 2014 “Godzilla,” but he takes every opportunity to awe at the scenery. “Rogue One” is at its best when it pauses to render the distant Death Star as an ashy white moon in the sky, when it turns a desert wasteland into the ruins of a fallen civilization, when — in one fantastic early sequence — it re-stages “The Battle of Algiers” in a sand-swept marketplace that’s teeming with alien life and making uncertain use of violent imagery from the contemporary Middle East. It’s the only time when “Rogue One” makes good on its promise to be a war movie, and not just a “Star Wars” movie with a slightly higher body count (though a climactic space battle is graced with enough raw carnage to become the series’ best).

Like so much of this film, that electrifyingly staged passage is suspended between the past of one galaxy and the present day of another. “Rogue One” — released 11 years after its prequel and 39 years after its sequel — isn’t just a bridge between generations, it’s a waypoint between analog and digital ways of storytelling. And on that level, it’s absolutely fascinating. Edwards clearly reveres the practical genius of George Lucas’ designs, and his film does a great job of mixing modern touches (e.g. a climactic moment that hinges on boosting a satellite signal) with more material inflections (e.g. a parallel climactic moment that hinges on someone pushing a delightfully rustic metal switch). The whole movie is compellingly balanced between old and new, determined to pave over the potholes that have been caused by corporate and creative upheaval over the years and force a feeling of cohesion upon Hollywood’s signature spectacle. This is about bringing peace to the galaxy in more ways than one.

READ MORE: ‘Rogue One’ Star Ben Mendelsohn Explains Where His New Villain Fits in ‘Star Wars’ Franchise

If only that renovation didn’t lead to more bumps in the road than it smooths out, if only “Rogue One” didn’t share its characters’ tragic need to be defined by its mission. The film is completely constricted by its purpose, choked by Darth Vader and the shadow of his looming war. It’s frustrating enough that contemporary blockbusters have become so episodic, each franchise installment an advertisement for the next, but it’s even more suffocating to watch a film that has to fit the contours of a sequel that the world has already committed to memory.

Riz Ahmed Rogue One

“Rogue One”

Lucasfilm / Jonathan Olley

Almost everything that works about “Rogue One” does so on its own strength, and almost everything that doesn’t work about “Rogue One” does so out of out of deference to other movies that were already holding up fine on their own. It can be cute to watch this cast reach into history and tie knots out of the franchise’s loose ends, but Edwards’ film doesn’t just leverage the franchise’s first two trilogies, it relies on them (a feeling that’s made all the more frustrating by the director’s obvious ability to endow sui generis moments with the saga’s signature thrill).

[slight act one spoilers]

“Rogue One” is riddled with examples of such parasitic storytelling, but one particularly unforgivable decision towers above the rest, as damning a pox upon the “Star Wars” franchise as Jar Jar Binks or the digital Jabba that was inserted into the special edition of “A New Hope.” Brace for what might just be the worst (and most overplayed) CG character in the history of modern Hollywood: Young Grand Moff Tarkin.

That’s right, they brought Peter Cushing back from the dead, and the results are unnatural, unethical, and borderline unholy. Worst of all, they’re hideous. Cushing’s lifeless digital husk is a blight upon the most beautiful “Star Wars” film to date, its presence squeezing the air out of several different scenes. Zombie Tarkin is macabre, distracting, and the start of a long slide down a slippery slope, but — worse than that — his presence isn’t just a blemish on the face of “Rogue One,” it’s a symptom of its fatal decision to glorify the past at the expense of charting a new course for the present. But here we are, the filmmakers casting themselves as Lazarus lost in the uncanny valley, so turned around that no one realized how much better the movie would be if it ditched Tarkin entirely (his sole purpose is to defang Orson Krennic, a villain who’s reduced to nothing but another phantom menace).

[end spoilers]

Of course, in a film where everything is frustrating and nothing is easy, it should come as no surprise that the film’s bravura final moments fly in the face of such thinking and realize the full potential of ret-con storytelling. Equal parts satisfying and maddening, the last few moments of “Rogue One” are almost good enough to fool you into thinking that the whole enterprise was a good idea.

But for all of its fan service, the denouement only works because of how well it illustrates to the film’s most crucial theme: Rebellions are built on hope, and hope is built together.

“Rogue One,” more fluently than any other “Star Wars” story, speaks to the idea that resistance is a team effort, and that every act of heroism is made possible by the sacrifices of a thousand others — that every hero is made possible by a thousand people whose names have been long forgotten. This is a film about how even the smallest acts of courage can change the world, a film about doing the right thing even when it’s easier to just stare at your feet and stay in formation. Not only is “Rogue One” the rare modern blockbuster that could have afforded to risk something real, it’s the rare modern blockbuster that gave itself a genuine responsibility to do so. And yet, for all of its excitement and occasional splendor, there’s nothing the least bit rebellious about it. It could have been special, instead it’s just… forced.

Grade: C+

“Rogue One” opens in theaters on Friday, December 16.

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Comments

Bob

RHEHEHRHRHEHHRHEHEHRHEHEHREHHR HAHAHAHA RHHRHRHRHHEEH BLLLAAAAA BLAAA BLAAA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH WODA WOODA WOODA …BEEP BEEP…..HAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHA

Jason

Man you sound like a miserable and pretentious individual. Seriously stop reviewing movies. It’s entertainment not a thesis.

    Me

    Is that you Jason?

    urg

    Why do you feel so bad that you have to react like this? What is your problem?

Vader's Fist

What an utterly malevolent, nasty piece of thrash. This review clearly cannot even find its ass backwards. Mr. Ehrlich clearly has some major unresolved resentment issues about SW. What a sad, disencouraging read. Clearly, Mr. Ehrlich is more fit to write self-indulgent prose than review pieces of fan religion. What a waste. Oh dear, oh dear …

    steve

    steve

    steve

    How can anybody even say anything good about this movie, you would have to have mush for brains to enjoy it. IT has nothing. No character, no story, no plot. Nothing. It was such a pile of horseshit that the best acting is done by someone who has been dead 20 years.

    steve

    Couldn’t disagree more, thank God there are people who are willing to say when something is bad, as there was nothing good about this film apart from cinematography.

Poe

Watch out, guys. You can’t criticize Star Wars, or you’re objectively wrong. No criticism allowed.

Dennis Harvey

It’s so bizarre that fanboys would come to a website that is specifically designed primarily for people who like independent and foreign films, then scream bloody murder when it doesn’t give a gushing review to a new “Star Wars” movie. What do you expect? Why are you even here? There are plenty of websites that will reflect the tastes of those who are primarily into mainstream, popcorn entertainment. This isn’t one of them.

    Sam

    Even if it is not an independent film it is still amazing. Not liking something because it is not fitting to your edginess is a joke.

      Blurbwhore

      I really didn’t like it, I thought it was well plotted and visually interesting, but poorly acted and very thinly characterized. The movie didn’t make me care about a single one of the characters. Although Mads was still great. THey’re just opinions man, we all do have different takes. And mine was so luke warm on this film I’m just glad there is one critic out there who watched the same film as me, be glad you saw a different version.

        Ranulf Lewis-Flanagan

        So people are complaining (maybe/probably rightly so) that the characters don’t develop.
        What I want to know is how they could have been developed more. I know there could be more development, I’m struggling to think where.
        Though one area I did like is the lack of “emotional progression.” Ie where many films may have placed a kiss, Rogue One had instead a hug.

        steve

        Agree, apart from that it was “well-plotted”. No it wasn’t, it just went form A to B in a rather inane way.

Trishna

Please why no review of Allied? You are a great fan of Brad Pitt so why no support. He deserves Oscar buzz.

My festering sausage collection.

A fair review. Seriously ropey scripted coupled with an overly familiar storyline made it almost impossible to care about the flat cliche ridden characters. The soundtrack seemed to misfire badly, never quite deciding what it wanted to do. Still plenty of nostalgia and knowing winks for the less choosey fanboys/girls.

mats

this was kinda disappointing.. The first trailer looked more promising but this looks quite boring and badly acted. but it’s only a trailer, and ofcourse Nolan’s dialogue has grown kinda corny through the years so yeah … will see it tho

jonny

you probably shouldn’t do movies reviews anymore, you always seem to troll. you’ve kind of lost the big picture on why we watch movies. all you can see is mistakes in everything. poor fellow.

Andrew

Just figured I’d throw this out there – one of the people I saw the movie with didn’t even realize that Tarkin was CGI. Clearly not everyone is as distressed about it as you.

Karl

The Tarkin CGI was absolutely incredible. It looked perfect in every way. What are you on about?

    David Steadson

    I found the Tarkin CGI excellently done, but still very much in the “uncanny valley”. Interestingly my 11yr old son, normally very astute, didn’t even realise it wasn’t a real actor. Perhaps growing up in the world of Xbox has altered the valley’s topography for the younger generation?

      DeanC

      I think you’re all focusing on the wrong point here. Regardless of how convincing you found the appearance, the issue is that Peter Cushing has no say in the matter being dead and all?

      So how would you like it if you spent a lifetime crafting a career of great performances, to then be turned into a studios digital puppet after your death. Free to do whatever the hell they like with your image onscreen?

      Go watch the hugely underrated 2013 film The Congress and you’ll see what im getting at.

      Though I do admit there’s a certain irony to bringing Peter Cushing of all people back from the dead.

        Fredsi

        Fredsify

        Fredsify

        Now hold your horses before you scream bloody murder. Peter Cushing was brought back with the permission of his family – or whoever decides that kind of thing. With their blessing. Besides it was a continuation of a character he has portrayed and was a continuation of that character. Just because someone is dead does not make them holy you know.. he’s dead.. he doesn’t care.

Dan

Thank god your opinions don’t really matter. This movie was glorious

Sam

All around bad review of a great film. I could pick apart your review but it is what it is.

    My festering sausage collection.

    Just because you liked the film doesn’t make this a bad review. You need to be more critical, why is it a bad review?
    Saying something is good or bad without anything constructive to follow is meaningless. Personally I thought the film was a flat lifeless regurgitation of all the previous films one more time. Corporate film making at its dullest.

Todd

Funny, the other CGI characters looked fantastic but Tarkin was indeed hideous and absolutely distracting. It reminded me of the Scorpion King. Otherwise, fun movie. The review nails the lack of risk being taken. That’s kinda what happens when a huge studio gets ahold of this kind of franchise.

John

Any one who says the Tarkin or the Leia CGI looked bad is completely full of ish. It was incredibly done & not distracting by any means. Actually, if anything, it was distracting in terms of how GOOD it was. I wish they’d go back and re-do the prequel trilogy CGI to make Jar Jar & other Gungans etc. look so life-like.

    My festering sausage collection.

    What is ish?

      John

      That depends on what your definition of “is” is.

Nacho

This review captures exactly how I feel after watching the movie, and I think the original vision of Gareth Edwards was neutered by some Mickey Mouse executives, perhaps fearful of not getting more tie-in business. And yet the parts that work are surely some of the finest Star Wars scenes ever, and that’s what’s very frustrating for me.

LORDVDR

You’re dead; wrong.

David

Yeah, this movie was “painfully safe’, especially the ending. I can’t wait to see all the spinoff movies.

Sith Lord

““Rogue One” is riddled with examples of such parasitic storytelling, but one particularly unforgivable decision towers above the rest,”

And then you go on to complain about the use of CGI to bring Peter Cushing back from the dead. Not exactly a cogent argument, and really problematic for the article as a whole as the author (who had no problems with TFA paralleling the plot of ANH) has a huge issue with Rogue One relying too much on the previous films.

darth bored

No risk? It’s a DISNEY movie. They killed EVERYONE in the end. What disney movie does that? I saw it as a huge accomplishment for that reason alone.

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