Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the Star Wars universe’s way of digging through its own history for the movements that started the movements (and the money that can be added to the other money), the lesser told stories of perhaps more normal heroes outside the Jedi eschelons. These types of franchise films are always a balancing act between the notion of the money-grabbing pull at the core of their conception and the heart the artists involved can instill in them. The Force Awakens had so much of the latter, with its persistence in taking time for developing character relationships at every turn. But Rogue One, which digs through old (fictional) narratives, lacks that quality. Ultimately, a lack of character development leaves the film’s role in the creation of cinematic suburban sprawl exposed.
You might recall (perhaps you even have it memorized) that the opening crawl before Star Wars: A New Hope reads:
Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards, is an attempt to turn “Rebel spies” into individuals with their own heroic story; it gives them a heroic storyline, but giving them individuality is what’s more important for it to have the resonance its subject (and its bold ending), demands — and here it falters. The characters, refreshingly, aren’t particularly archetypal. But they’re mostly just abridged hints of interesting people who unfortunately have to gun down too many Imperial spaceships to let their personalities flourish.
The film begins with a flashback to Felicity Jones’ character Jyn Erso’s childhood — a tragic moment where her family is torn apart, rendered with an impressive lack of cheesiness — tasteful enough to suggest what the movie could’ve been. And, indeed, the movie continues to be tasteful: it’s doesn’t have the desperation of the first round of prequels.
But if you hold its rebels up to John Boyega’s Finn, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe in The Force Awakens, the key difference is that there’s little incentive to fall in love with Rogue One‘s characters, and that makes the stakes of this film — which attempts to be a darker drama than the others — feel far lower, despite everything we’re told.
After Jyn’s family is broken, she’s taken under the wing of the rebel warlord Saw Gerrera — played by an excellent Forest Whitaker, in a role that should have gotten more screen time — and taught how to do rebel-things, like be convicted and impassioned and so forth.
The plot takes off when she’s summoned to find Gerrera — who abandoned her when she was 16 — alongside the opaquely-motivated rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). They find Gerrera on Jedha, the occupied moon where they band up with blind almost-jedi Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his bickering companion, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang; their jocularly bitter but deeply loyal relationship, it turns out, the film’s most compelling character dynamic); they also have a chance encounter in a prison cell with an Imperial-captain-gone-rogue, Bodhi Rook, played by The Night Of‘s Riz Ahmed. His is a wiry and energizing performance of another very underwritten character. Rook just so happens to be carrying a message from Jyn’s long-lost father, with instructions on how to destroy the Death Star.
Now it’s up to them to get those instructions out to the rest of the rebel forces. And there you have it: most of the film consists of somersaulting, exploding lumps of exquisitely designed CGI something-or-others attacking each other. The production design is stunning, of course, with endless detail, including a country-sized Ozymandias on the surface of one planet, an Imperial lair that looks like a cross between Mordor and a Sandals resort, and a trading outpost that’s a dizzyingly immense pair of space testicles — always fun.
Rogue One, in fact, has the style, performances and themes of a good war story about unsung heroes. But rather than investing us in its fights by making us care about these characters, it thinks it can make us care by doing the opposite. Following the first 10 minutes of development for Jyn Erso, it’s all war, all the time, and anything we’re supposed to glean about any of these characters comes in the form of quips with a sassy robot named K-2SO or very ambiguous hints of tenderness shared as lasers from blasters whiz across their faces, or as they’re escaping the mass-obliterations of whole planets at the hands (er, laser beams) of the Imperial Forces.
No one should expect subtle character drama from Star Wars, but here characters almost seem to exist simply because the sight of an actor onscreen makes you think, “hey, that must be a character.” With a cast like this — between Ahmed, Jones, Luna, Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, and Ben Mendelsohn, this movie is not populated with celebrities, but rather talent — the missed opportunity for substantiating the movie’s war-story-weight with emotional investment is especially noticeable.
On a thematic level, the film is pertinent: only a month after Trump’s victory, the struggle between choosing helplessness or hope is currently coursing through the liberal American spirit. Scenes where the Imperial Forces can decide, on a whim, to destroy an entire planet become downright horrifying — particularly in the slow, operatic way their destruction is rendered — in a moment where a reckless man is refueling nuclear fears. And within all of that, the film’s decision to subvert the insidious Hollywood tradition of only having brawny white dudes save the day is refreshing; a story about rebellion, particularly, that continued that tired tradition would seem widely disingenuous.
Because of these occasional positives, I found myself wishing for more quiet interludes onscreen, moments that would allow us to really get to know, and thus root for — and potentially mourn for — this scrappy band in their fight against the Imperial forces. There’s a moment, between all of the spaceships exploding and stormtroopers storming and lasers flying, when Jones’ Jyn has to climb through a small hole that’s guarded by a set of metal teeth that open and close like a guillotine. The film’s most accomplished and chilling sense of tension and danger arrives in this pause, as Jyn stares up into the jaws of death. If only the film were able to show us more of these tensions: tensions between a person confronting a simple instrument of life and death, tensions between characters as they grapple with fate. (Sci-fi and fantasy films with long combat scenes have accomplished this in the past: the Lord of the Rings movies, for instance, and of course earlier Star Wars films.) Then, the choreographed war scenes wouldn’t feel so endless, and even messy. It feels a waste to show us the unsung heroes of this world, and then only tell us about who they were in battle.