WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
This time, the Empire has no clothes.
Critics and fans seem to be enjoying the latest Star Wars movie, with 85 percent of critics and 89 percent of fans on Rotten Tomatoes saying they enjoyed it.
I’m not sure what movie most of them are watching, but I’m not sure it was the same one I saw on New Year’s Day. The one I watched featured two-dimensional characters, hackneyed dialogue, a parade of clichés and action scenes that seemed interminable.
No such luck.
Rogue One fell flat for me almost from the outset. The backstory for its main protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), seemed all too familiar: The Empire sends its goons to an isolated outpost to disrupt a family that’s apparently minding its own business. Jyn’s mother, inexplicably, leaves her daughter (who looks like she’s about 6 or 7 years old) out in the middle of nowhere to run back and confront a heavily armed group of men intent on taking her husband away.
Bad idea. It might have made sense if she had some command of the Force, but as it was, all she had was a gun and her misplaced bravado wound up getting her shot and killed – leaving her husband to be carted away and her daughter an orphan without food or shelter. I don’t know whether I’d nominate her for a Darwin Award or cross her off my Mother of the Year list first.
I hoped that the ensuing script would develop Jyn into a complex character I could root for, but that never happened. She seemed to little more than a pale imitation of Rey, the protagonist from The Force Awakens … but without any Force to awaken. In fact, there’s only one light sabre in the entire movie, and the Force seems largely relegated to the sidelines. It appears most often in empty pseudo-religious references, none more annoying than blind martial arts wizard Chirrut Îmwe’s (Donnie Yen) frenetic repetition of the mantra “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.”
I found this as annoying as many people found Jar Jar Binks.
The saying could have been employed with some gravitas at high-tension points to show the character focusing his resolve. But instead it seems to have been inserted almost randomly, and at a 78-rpm speed that makes Imwe sound like he’s channeling the Chipmunks. The result is that he seems more distracted than focused.
Beyond that, the Force takes a back seat to machine-gun shootouts and a space battle that seems tedious minus Luke Skywalker’s piloting prowess.
Boredom at breakneck speed
How can a viewer get bored with so much going on?
It can happen, believe me. The movie sets a frenetic pace but winds up taking us almost nowhere not fast enough. It starts out by hopscotching from planet to planet like a manic Bugs Bunny in space – without Marvin the Martian as comic relief. (There’s very little comedy in the movie, which is another of its failings; most of the humor involves throwback references to other Star Wars films.) And it ends with an overly long space battle in which X-wing fighters are really doing little more than providing cover for the really important stuff going on down below.
The writers seem to have been so absorbed with their action sequences that they ran out of time for meaningful character development. Forest Whitaker offers a hint at some complexity as Saw Gerrera, a radical who has broken with the Alliance to fight the Empire as a terrorist. But the conflict between this approach and the more cautious course charted by the Alliance is never explored fully (beyond the decision of Jyn and company to fly off to Scarif against the council’s order’s). Meanwhile, Gerrera himself chooses to stay behind and get crushed by an earthen tidal wave rather than trying to escape. In essence, the character acts against his own survival instincts and passes up the chance to continue a fight to which he has dedicated his life.
It makes zero sense.
For some reason, the writers ate up valuable screen time with a meaningless flashback early in the movie, a “feel-good” cameo by C3PO and R2D2 that had no relevance to the script and several “appearances” by a CGI version of Peter Cushing – who was reanimated (he’s been dead for more than two decades) to reprise a role that could have been left out of the script without being missed. Better yet, the writers could have used Darth Vader in a more central role, given the fact that Vader’s voice – James Earl Jones – is still very much alive and his armor requires zero CGI. But maybe that was the point: The filmmakers wanted to show off their CGI prowess, and if you think whiz-bang special effects are what made the Star Wars franchise interesting, that’s exactly what you’re likely to do.
And yes, the special effects are part of it. The climactic scenes on and above Scarif are dazzling, but the scene – with its palm trees and tropical setting – reminded me of the climactic scene of Men in Black 3, which played out similarly with a tense encounter atop a high tower, and to much better effect. Then again, I challenge anyone to argue that Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones or Josh Brolin wouldn’t have made Rogue One a better movie.
If you’re introducing new actors and new characters, it’s hard to care much about them when they’re getting killed off left and right before we get a chance to really know them. George R.R. Martin may dispatch beloved (and hated) characters with gleeful abandon, but at least he lets us get acquainted before they die. The same can’t be said for the characters in Rogue One, virtually all of whom perish before the carnage is over – even a reprogrammed imperial droid. The scene in which Jyn and nascent love interest Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) die on the beach at the end fails to elicit much pathos because there’s not enough time for their relationship to develop any depth.
Killing everyone off, to be sure, saves the writers from explaining why they don’t appear in the series’ “next” movie, chronologically speaking (the original Star Wars), given the fact that it was released nearly four decades ago.
Maybe CGI could have solved that problem for them, too. Thankfully, they knew better than to monkey around with a classic.
And a classic is one thing Rogue One is not. If you're expecting a film on a par with the original trilogy, this is not the Star Wars you're looking for. No offense to those who enjoyed it, but if The Force Awakens injected a new hope into the franchise, this installment did the opposite. My personal hope is that Disney returns to the Rey-Finn storyline launched in the 2015 film and dispenses with further prequels, which always seem to be more disappointing than the movies in the series that advance the story chronologically.
I’ll go see that movie. Rogue One didn’t kill my enjoyment of Star Wars, even though it tried its best.