Contains minor spoilers.
Originally published on my personal blog here.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a highly-anticipated film, and its plain to see why. It works hard to recapture the look and feel of the original trilogy, being set just before the events of A New Hope, and it promised a grittier, more war-torn take on the franchise. Force-users and the Jedi are largely absent, instead giving us a better look at everyday combatants in the Rebellion and the insurmountable tasks they had to accomplish against a vast Empire.
I haven’t written a formal review on this film and I no longer intend to. My reason for this has to do with how much I had to pick apart my own feelings on the film and refer to the opinions of other critics to organize my thoughts. While this has helped refine my own notions and settle some feelings I was unconfident about, it no longer feels appropriate to me to post a formal review, which is a shame considering how much I enjoyed reviewing The Force Awakens.
Rogue One is a movie I made excuses for, and I wonder how many fans are doing the same. Despite my tendency to avoid hype, I regrettably went into the movie having heard claims that it was one of the best, if not the best Star Wars film. I heard it was The Empire Strikes Back good. It’s not. I kept waiting for it to be, but it never happened. I don’t think it’s a bad film, but the line between quality and enjoyment was very blurred for me, hence my period of reflection.
Excuses I made that stood out most were about the protagonist Jyn Erso. Felicity Jones seems to be a fine actress, I don’t think she performed badly at any point, but we were not given nearly enough for her character to be compelling. I thought up justifications for her motivations, inferred as much as I could muster, but the fact of the matter is the story never clearly lets you in on what she’s feeling, how she’s changing, or why her arc goes in the way that it does. There was so much I had to piece together myself to justify her actions, when it should have been clearly understandable. Jyn’s weakness as a character brought down the story’s strength as a whole.
While I’ve heard complaints about the other characters in their group I was actually fine with them. They weren’t especially deep, but I understood enough of who they were that I was able to form a strong enough emotional attachment. Cassian, for example, was deeply devoted to the cause; so much so that he’s had to do some messed up things for the sake of it and he’s not always okay with that. This was clearly communicated to me and I never found myself wondering why he’s making certain decisions or changing in the ways that he does. K-2SO is an obvious darling as well, a feeling many share. His presence was purely for utility, but he brought a great deal of personality and less goofy comic relief.
Another factor I was completely blind to for a while was just how much this movie leans on existing knowledge the audience has of the lore. At first, I hadn’t considered this at all, but once it was pointed out to me it became glaring. There may be little nods and bits of information that I could catch on a repeat viewing, but largely this movie expects most of it’s audience to know key things about the Star Wars universe going in.
Guiltiest in this case is what the Force is and who the Jedi were. Two of the characters under the "Rogue One" call-sign were religiously affiliated with the Force, one of them still actively preaching it and living by it, yet for the most part the movie assumes the audience’s understanding of what the Force is and does little to build on it or reiterate what it is from their perspective. I understood the Force enough thanks to prerequisite knowledge, which allowed me to get invested, but you have to admit the film’s inability to create this investment on its own is a flaw.
I want to reiterate that I don’t think this movie is write-off, just that it has a lot of problem that stopped it from being the more deeply enthralling entry I was hoping for. In many ways, it falls in line with the sentiment of “a movie made for the fans” and there are a lot of Star Wars fans out there. It may not be an excuse, but there is a massive enough fanbase that I can understand the reasoning creators of the movie would have. A movie man for the fans isn’t necessarily made to tell the best story, unfortunately.
Even with a weak story and an underwritten protagonist Rogue One still builds on the universe in ways I can appreciate, took some risks with the material, has wonderful effects both CGI and practical, a consistently gritty tone and visual direction, and a spectacular third act that leaves the film on a definite high note. All the same, I can’t help feeling let down. It was exciting and well-made, but when the rush subsides I just couldn’t help feeling wanting.