“Rogue One” is supposed to be a “Star Wars story”: a film set in the Star Wars universe, but falling outside the plot of the main movies. This was a great opportunity, then, to expand and deepen the universe, and especially to experiment with it: to introduce not only new faces and planets—a must-have for any Star Wars movie—but also new concepts, visuals, factions, and ideas. “Rogue One” does decently enough on the first part, but it utterly fails in the second. It obligingly delivers the thrills that come with the modern blockbuster, but in everything else, it is exceedingly cautious in saying or showing anything controversial or original that doesn’t toe the established Star Wars line.
The movie fills a semi-important lacuna in the overall Star Wars narrative, regarding how the plans for the “Death Star” were stolen by the Rebel Alliance. The movie’s protagonist is Jyn Erso, the child of scientist-engineer Galen Erso, from whom she is separated as a child when the Empire, in the form of the ambitious Orson Krennic, captures Galen to force him to complete the designs of the Death Star. This background story is briskly told in the opening ten minutes of the movie, without the unnecessary indulgence in “origins” stories that now seem to be in every movie.
Jyn lives in Empire captivity under a pseudonym when she is freed by the Rebellion, who wish to use her to track down her father. The plot from here takes various twists and turns, and ultimately morphs into a suicide mission-style attempt to steal the Death Star plans from a heavily guarded Empire bastion. Unfortunately, most of the plot in the first two thirds of the movie falls surprisingly flat. We’re introduced to Saw Gerrera, for example, who raised Jyn in the absence of her parents before abandoning her suddenly. Gerrera is also presented as the head of a competing rebel faction, one which disagrees in the choice of means (and perhaps also ends?) with the Rebel Alliance. So here are two topics that the movie flags as interesting material to explore—but then doesn’t. Gerrera’s character is quickly set aside (being a mentor in the Star Wars universe seems to be a bad omen), as is his competing rebel faction.
The movie follows the same approach for any other important questions of substance. Jyn’s father is seen by the Rebel Alliance as a collaborator, and they hatch a plan, hidden from Jyn, to kill him. There’s much here that the movie could usefully explore. First, many of the previous movies have insisted that the Empire essentially rules by fear, and that the destruction of the dreaded Death Star is somehow enough to break its prominence. While rule by fear is partially how dictatorships operate, the much harder-to-bear truth is that dictators also rely on a set of bureaucrats and other groups which profit from injustice, and far from being cowed into obedience, actively support it. But “Rogue One” doesn’t even allow this possibility, and is quick to assert that Galen has been forced into designing the Death Star, which he professes in a cloying message delivered to his daughter.
Still, then, there is another moral dilemma which the movie raises: even if Galen was forced to support the Empire, would it not still be justifiable to kill him? Would the rebels be justified in killing civilians, even if those civilians support the regime no more than them? For a moment, it looks as if the movie might be interested in these questions, but then it flinches and casts the question aside entirely. Jyn, who might be justifiably furious at the hidden plan to kill her father, also quickly forgives and forgets; no moral or emotional challenge remains. Instead, the movie offers trite homilies about what it means to rebel—that “rebellions are based on hope”.
This is even more curious given the final act, which shows (what amounts to) a large-scale suicide mission to steal the Death Star plans. One of the central pieces in the movie is supposed to be Jyn’s speech in which she rouses her fellow rebels into supporting the mission. But as so much else in the movie, the speech feels like a dutiful set piece rather than a genuine attempt to discuss the sacrifice and bravery that such a mission would require. Jyn and her fellow warriors simply are not believable rebels: they rebel because the plot demands it, not because they are desperate or angry or brave.
It is clear that “Rogue One” tries to be gritty. There is a much more stringent sense that actual, real people die in wars—even star wars—and the movie mostly doesn’t have the stylised attitude to fighting of previous Star Wars movies. But being gritty isn’t much use if you don’t have any story to tell for it; in fact, the violence then feels more grating and senseless. Indeed, the (mostly) silly depiction of war in the prequel trilogy is in that sense much preferable.
Lastly, “Rogue One” suffers from the same overdose of nostalgia which ailed The Force Awakens. The movie feels obliged to drop a CGI-ed Grand Moff Tarkin into the movie, and some wholly unnecessary Darth Vader scenes, even though the movie has a perfectly fine, original villain in Orson Krennic. Again a movie resolves around the Death Star, which I find thoroughly uninteresting by now. There are AT-AT walkers, Star Destroyers, silly androids, and a whole variety of in-jokes and references the movie feels obliged to provide. Not only in ideas, but also in visuals and content the movie allows itself very little leeway to deviate from the established canon. Where we are given new faces and planets, they often feel forgettable, backdrop to a plot that needs to propel forward.
This isn’t in any way a bad movie. It looks great, and has many beautiful shots, as well as seamlessly integrated CGI. Its action scenes in the final third deliver. Except perhaps a Darth Vader scene in the middle, it is never insultingly stupid like the prequel trilogy. It’s a meaningful addition to the Star Wars universe, and while its plot is unremarkable, it’s also unobjectionable. It will give Star Wars fans the kick they want—it admittedly did it for me. At the same time, the writing in Rogue One, just as the writing in The Force Awakens, has been cowardly and uninspiring. It’s the kind of writing that results from a billion-heavy franchise which can afford good producers and directors, but which cannot afford to truly experiment and explore.