Review: Rogue One – A galaxy treads water

Due to reshoots, this (and other shots in the trailers) doesn't end up in the final cut. Just so you know.

Due to reshoots, this shot (along with others in the trailers) doesn’t end up in the final cut. Just so you know.

PREQUELS, by their very station in an overarching narrative, face a conundrum: They’re moving toward a foregone conclusion. Star Wars knows this better than most franchises, having crafted an entire trilogy of the things that were hamstrung by their adherence to the sacred canon of the original batch. Prequels can only work within the confines imposed by, ironically, their forebears, where every beat must ultimately inform a plot that the audience has already seen. At best, they enrich the narrative from whence they came; at worst, they’re contrivances for the sake of convenience.

Walt Disney’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is thankfully not the latter, but neither does it reach the heights of the former. It’s a December placeholder to fill the gap between Episode VII and Episode VIII of the main series, content to merely kick off the projected anthology of side-stories in the Galaxy, achieving not a whole lot else in the process. It’s happy to iterate upon familiar iconography and characters without establishing its own iconography and characters, its reverence for the original trilogy exceeding that of The Force Awakens by some margin.

Part of that reverence comes from its place in the chronology. Rogue One tells the Star Wars Story (that no one asked for) of a group of ragtag Rebellion outcasts banding together to steal the plans for a certain super-weapon from under the Empire’s nose, directly leading into the events of A New Hope. That’s about it. Much like the Rebels beneath the Death Star, the film struggles to escape from the enormous shadow of its chronological successor, leaning heavily on call-backs, references and cameos to cover the cracks made by paper-thin characters and utilitarian dialogue.

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Most of the film’s problems cluster in the first two acts. Beyond the barebones functionality of the plot, Rogue One’s characters fail to match the charisma or depth of others throughout the series. Comparisons with The Force Awakens are inevitable and, usually, unfavourable: where Episode VII showed Daisy Ridley’s Rey to have a life and personality of her own before adventure calls, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso is a blank from the start. 15 years pass between her introduction as a child and her re-introduction as a jaded “criminal” of some kind, but what happened in that time is only vaguely touched upon.

Compounded by a trajectory that leads her from bland cynic to blander rabble-rouser, we’re left with a fundamental lack of understanding of who the protagonist is and why we should care about her. An accomplished actress, Jones is given nothing to work with and what little she does manage to salvage is stiff and unconvincing. Elsewhere, the most noteworthy part of Cassian Andor is Diego Luna’s accent and the dark flashes of moral ambiguity lurking beneath. What could have become an interesting take on the emotional cost of the Rebel cause is swiftly brushed aside in order to reach the next action scene, and it doesn’t help that Luna plays him as the dourest wet blanket in the Galaxy.

I have no absolutely no idea what Forest Whitaker was going for with his mumble-bark Clone Wars veteran – whatever it was, it didn’t work – but Donnie Yen’s Zatoichi-esque Chirrut Îmwe is a treat, and not just because it’s nice to see Donnie Yen in a modern blockbuster. His camaraderie with Jiang Wen’s Baze is one of the film’s consistent highlights. Former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) provides a welcome stab of sardonic humour amidst the military grit, complemented by Tudyk’s caustic delivery, but he sometimes tips into sit-com eye-rolling with his bevy of one-liners.

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Either way, these characters hold their single note to the end. There’s no meat to them whatsoever and, subsequently, no incentive to care about them. Only through the performances are we able to see the layers in these people and it’s a very mixed bag all round, and it’s not for a lack of talent. It’s a case of the script seeing A New Hope at the end of the line and doing only what’s necessary to connect the dots.

That’s why Rogue One sees fit to collate recognisable names and planets in the attempt to lend itself legitimacy within the canon. Some – like Yavin 4 and the presence of Darth Vader – are necessary and welcome; others, notably a specific cameo in the final seconds, rip you out of the film and leave you asking, “Why?”

Grand Moff Tarkin is a particular sticking point. Having obtained permission to use the long-passed Peter Cushing’s likeness, Lucasfilm decided the best way to incorporate this was to plaster Cushing’s face, through digital effects, onto a physical stand-in (Guy Henry, who also provided the voice). The effect is undeniably incredible, and all credit to the artists involved, but it’s also a distraction and a steep descent into the uncanny valley.

Beyond the ethical concerns which I won’t go into, there’s practicality to consider: If Genevieve O’Reilly can play Mon Mothma, looking exactly like Caroline Blakiston’s portrayal of the character, why couldn’t this be the case with Tarkin, whether through make-up, prosthetics or otherwise? It’d save a fraction of the $200 million budget, if nothing else.

This lovely shot also doesn't make it to the final cut.

This lovely shot also doesn’t make it to the final cut.

Despite these setbacks, numerous as they may seem, there actually is a lot to like in Rogue One, starting with the wonderful use of varied locations. While the deserts and bustling streets of Jedha are reminiscent of Tatooine, the industrial grime of Kafrene recalls Blade Runner; another planet, the rain-soaked wastes of Eadu, directly references Ridley Scott’s other masterpiece, Alien. The tropical atolls of Scarif, however, are the film’s real triumph, both in terms of cinematography and in providing the weightiest of the film’s numerous action sequences.

The sets, costumes and character designs match the tone and decor of A New Hope brilliantly, with desert walkways and industrial grime giving way to the sleek monochrome of Imperial bases. The effects work throughout is superb, particularly in the climactic battle as Starfighter debris crashes through the vacuum of laser-dotted space. Like The Force Awakens, the effects bolster the physicality of these set-pieces rather than detract from them, unlike the worst moments of the prequel trilogy.

Director Gareth Edwards, best known for 2014’s Godzilla re-imagining, brings an assured hand to these scenes that explode with blaster bolts and gritty militarism. This is Star Wars with the wars at full throttle, with Rebel troops storming the palm-laden beaches like they’re island hoppers as TIE Fighters and X-Wings scream through the sky. The final act’s barrelling pace and balletic action is a welcome remedy to the 90 minutes of banality that preceded it, choosing to keep dialogue to a relative minimum and hurling the audience into the carnage wholesale.

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As the film breaks through its malaise in this final act, the screen lights up. Suddenly, the stakes are clear. Suddenly, there’s adrenaline and focus. We’re thrown headlong into the fire and it’s absolutely exhilarating. The shots are gorgeous, the editing is perfectly balanced and the tension becomes almost unbearable, but the mounted slew of problems sours the thrill and holds the film back from greatness.

Making a good prequel is making sure the journey is just as important as the destination. The challenge in getting Rogue One to A New Hope was to ensure that the former be as vital to the series as the latter. Rogue One fails by failing its characters and endlessly stressing, through unflattering comparisons and bald deference, just how much more important the destination is. We shouldn’t ask whether Jyn Erso will be remembered with the fondness that Luke Skywalker is; we should be asking if Jyn Erso will be remembered at all.

When Rogue One gets going it’s an absolute blast, that much is certain – the problem is how long it takes to get there and how much of it we’ll be talking about in a year’s time.

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