One of the jokes I keep seeing circulated around about Rogue One is that it’s plot can be described as thus: pew pew pew pew, blam whoosh kaboom. As far as synopses go, it’s not too far off the mark. There’s no doubt about it, Rogue One is an action spectacular, presenting the viewer a vista of uninterrupted rebel v empire battle that fans have been speculating at ever since some brave, foolish guys in bulky helmets and black vests tried to run defense against Darth Vader in the opening moments of A New Hope. Unfortunately, that synopsis is also an accurate reflection of the depth of character on display within the rebel ranks. The result is that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a half-satisfying film. As action set-piece it’s glorious. As a movie about living, breathing heroes, it falls considerably short.
The (somewhat expanded) plot: The childhood of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) ended the day the Galactic Empire murdered her mother (Valene Kane) and pressed her father, engineer Galen Erso (Danish Superstar Mads Mikkelsen) into service in building weapons. Now a grown woman, Jyn wages her own personal battles against Empire rule. When she’s rescued from jailing by a Rebel Alliance crew led by Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Rebels contract her to track down her father and the plans for a space station with the power to level planets on which he’s rumored to be working. Joining Jyn and Cassian on their mission is a ragtag crew including turned Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), cynical droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the blind and force-sensitive monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and his chain gun wielding partner in arms Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Hot on their trail is a cunning and increasingly desperate imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).
Once boots are on the ground, blasters are cocked, and AT-AT’s are lumbering, Rogue One is incredible. The action in Rogue One once our team is making their run for the Death Star plans are beautifully orchestrated. Director Gareth Edwards creates battles that feel like a cohesive part of a whole, where sacrifices carry a little more weight and small victories have a payoff. When the concept of “Star Wars war film” was floated ages ago, this is what many wanted and envisioned. It’s a sweeping third act that gives the airport battle from Civil War some heated competition for best of the year. Emotionally and viscerally, it’s incredibly satisfying. Unfortunately, there’s a lot leading up to that third act.
The main cast of Rogue One is infuriatingly two-dimensional. The film opens with the harrowing scene from Jyn’s childhood where she’s separated from her childhood, only to pick with a fully grown character whose wealth of backstory is unduly snatched away. Jyn practically burns with the unused story potential and is done no favors. If Felicity Jones had further insight into what drives Jyn Erso, she plays it close to the chest. Jones’ performance doesn’t have anywhere to take the character, her two biggest emotional moments fail to land in the way that they are clearly intended to, though in fairness that is in part due to a script that seems dead set on rushing past those scenes in favor of something a little more blasty. Diego Luna’s Cassian is even more a cipher than Jyn. The script never decides to stick with Luna being a haunted warrior fighting for good or a morally-grey revolutionary, and so he ends up as neither. All this is made more infuriating by the more compelling castmates playing second fiddle. Donnie Yen’s Chirrut and Wen Jiang’s Baze are some of the franchise’s most fascinating characters and their scenes hint at a larger world and greater depths in the ways that the best of Star Wars always does. Likewise, Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO consistently scores some killer comic relief, bringing to the team a different vibe from droids past and providing punch-up in a script too frequently bereft of humor or heart. By the time these characters get their due, it is entirely too late.
The villains fare better. Well, most of them. Ben Mendelsohn might just be one of the best villains of the Star Wars saga. Krennic is ambitious and nervous in a way Star Wars villains typically aren’t. Vader looms as an appropriately terrifying figure in Rogue One, where Krennic skulks, his face reading with a fear and desire to keep his head that breeds a more wily, and a somewhat more relatable villain. Faring…not so great is an uncanny CGI Peter Cushing as Gran Moff Tarkin. Voiced impeccably by Guy Henry, there’s something unsavory about seeing the long-dead veteran actor share the screen with flesh and blood actors. Great as the CGI is, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is somehow wrong. Though his estate signed off on the likeness, and are apparently pleased with the results, his addition leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Rogue One feels like a war movie that was reversed engineers. The movie starts with those glorious, epic battles as proof-of-concept, but never reaches far enough back to make the people fighting these wars worth rooting for. I get that, this late in the game, viewers don’t need much more reason to see the Empire take an L, but watching the Empire fall has never solely been what Star Wars was about. So what’s to be said for an emotionally static movie with some undeniably cool war scenes? Well, to put it in the words of a sequel to Rogue One “wars not make one great”.