I have a theory about Rogue One and its critical reception. Every fan has different aspects of the Star Wars franchise that they like and dislike; this movie, veering in a darker direction than the consistently family-friendly original trilogy, left out quite a few. Accordingly, if the things you liked about Star Wars were there, you liked the movie. If they were absent…you felt a bit more like me.
The premise of Rogue One comes from a single quote in A New Hope (correct me if I’m wrong): “Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Originally, I actually thought it was just an ill-conceived plan to fill in a certain plot hole we all know and love, concerning the manner in which the original Death Star was destroyed, and had no other reason to justify its own existence. I’ll admit that my preconceptions were a bit unfair; the premise was one of the best things about this movie.
The film’s first moments were slightly jarring, bouncing back and forth between planets without really developing any of them (Rogue One notably lacked the extensive world-building of the other Star Wars movies. Its settings were visually interesting, but the lack of cultural and historical details rendered them lifeless). Another thing the film lacked was…well, fantasy.
Rogue One is considerably darker than the rest of the Star Wars franchise, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I can’t even say that I didn’t like its gritty realness because fantastical adventuring is just what I’ve come to expect from the franchise (Where’s my escapism, dammit?). In fact, no high-stakes action story deserves a happy ending without a few heads rolling along the way, and Star Wars is no exception. But god damn, this movie just didn’t know where to stop. The only character that made me smile throughout Rogue One’s excruciatingly long runtime was K-2SO.
Rogue One had an interesting plot, but it always felt more like a piece of history than an actual narrative. And, as in any historical reenactment, the script was clunky as hell. They were spitting out so much about hope, but the only thing I hoped for was that I’d be able to leave the theater soon. No such luck; the movie’s a full two hours and thirteen minutes long. Throughout that runtime, it never ceased to amaze me how little we learned about any of the characters, or how little they learned and developed in the duration of their adventure. I had to begin asking tough questions of the writers; Does anything in this movie deserve expansion? Is it important that these characters are well crafted? Are the team’s various relationships with each other developed over time?
The answer was always “No.” But here are some of the things I did like about it:
- Cassian’s voice
- Bodhi’s goggles
- Chirrut Imwe’s faith in the Force
- Literally any scene with K-2SO in it
- The Death Star rising like a fucking sun
- The cold open.
- The scene where Jyn and Cassian are climbing up to get the plans, held my attention and was exciting and suspenseful.
- The very last Vader scene, in which the airlock is lit up with the glow of his lightsaber (and his terrifying presence). Gave me chills in the same way our boy Ani used to scare me when I watched the original trilogy as a kid. (That was all the nostalgia I needed from this standalone, if I was being K2 levels of honest)
It was hard not to compare this movie to The Force Awakens, now the second-most recent Star Wars film and still the most recent in the overarching narrative, and the difference was this. Rogue One had an interesting, unique plot that we’d never seen before, had only wondered about, if we’d even remembered the brief occasion where the mission was mentioned in the original trilogy. The Force Awakens’ plot was noticeably reminiscent of A New Hope’s, but what it lacked in plot creativity, it more than made up for with a compelling cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds. In the end (in my eyes, at least), that’s what puts it above Rogue One in enjoyability-factor.
All in all, Rogue One, had the building blocks of an interesting new Star Wars movie that diverged from the norm, but they never really came together, 99% because the characters were bland as hell. However, I also definitely understand why other fans enjoy this movie so much. It’s darker, more real, than the rest of the franchise, and it tells a story that’s critically important to the Star Wars narrative, fantasy and all.
The real question, I think, is “Did it need to be told?” That part’s up to the viewer.