While being positioned as a departure from the mainline Star Wars movies, Rogue One has a lot in common with its cinematic siblings. It’s got the force, charming rogues, a sweeping musical score, and very strong divisions between good and evil. New protagonist Jyn Erso’s headstrong attitude and estrangement from her parents feel lifted directly from last year’s The Force Awakens, and nearly all of the secondary characters feel like mash-ups of characters or archetypes previously used in the Star Wars saga.
This reliance on what has worked in the past is simultaneously one of Rogue One’s major strengths and one of it’s biggest weaknesses. The Star Wars universe continues to be incredibly satisfying on a level of pure spectacle. Iconic designs like the AT-ST, or the X-Wing, or the TIE Fighter, are just as exciting to watch onscreen in 2016 as they were 20, and presumably 39, years ago. This new film also gets what made the original trilogy exciting, with action scenes staying with the characters, maintaining a sense of scale and intensity. This makes the stakes feel more real and matches effectively with the more “lived-in” aesthetic of the original movies.
But almost all of the most affecting moments in the movie rely on the viewer being intimately familiar with 1977’s original Star Wars. Even the plot set-up, in which Jyn is brought into the plot to steal the plans for the Death Star, only really resonates if we already know what the Death Star is and how it is destroyed. Major characters from the original movie appear here, too (some of which are relatively controversial, and I won’t spoil them here), but their reverent screentime feels out of place in this particular movie. One character gets multiple scenes to himself, yet never actually crosses path with any of Rogue One’s major characters, nor does he really do anything that significantly alters the course of the plot.
On the one hand, you can argue that very few people are going to see Rogue One without being familiar with, at the very least, the original trilogy. You also can’t expect every single film in a franchise to re-establish the norms of the universe. However, Rogue One isn’t a sequel; it’s meant to be a stand-alone entry. There should be some impetus on the writer and director of the film to make sure that each scene is engaging and significant within the particular story that is being told. This is one of the reasons why the Hobbit films were not as well-received as the Lord of the Rings trilogy; the most significant subplot is completely unrelated to the central narrative and only significant if the viewer is already familiar with the previous movies.
Even the Star Wars prequel films, as awful as they often are, realized this. There’s an effort to explain why the Jedi are important in the grand scheme of things, and the scenes involving original trilogy characters are all significant to the stories of their given films. Even the most blatant fan-service, such as Yoda’s fight scene in Attack of the Clones, is still tied directly to the plot of the movie. Only a handful of Rogue One’s original-trilogy cameos fit the bill.
Yet despite relying on the original trilogy for many of its thrills, Rogue One could have borrowed more liberally from its approach to branching narratives. All three Star Wars trilogies so far have begun by presenting the action from one point of view, and not deviating until other characters enter into the central, already established plot. This is a simple, effective approach to storytelling that makes sure that the audience is engaged throughout the entire story. We don’t get dedicated scenes of Luke’s home life until he’s already engaged with the droids, we don’t follow Obi-Wan until he’s been introduced through Luke, and we don’t follow Han and Leia’s adventures independently until we’ve had a whole movie to get to know them.
Rogue One inverts this structure. It gives us brief introductions to several characters and ideas, then slowly begins to bring them together into one narrative. This approach can work beautifully, and it certainly doesn’t derail Rogue One, but it does make the movie feel less engaging, moment-by-moment, than the original Star Wars movie, or The Force Awakens. At its heart, Star Wars is a rousing tribute to classical storytelling and old-school cinematic serials. It can be described as simple, but its simplicity is its strength. It avoids complications to tell the most efficient, effective story it can.
Rogue One is not that story. After its disjointed beginning, it spends much of its running time having its characters chase down vague leads about the Death Star. They hop planets and make discoveries, but these excursions often feel like unnecessary diversions meant to extend the length of the movie.
It’s not all bad, however. Despite his physical absence throughout most of the movie, Jyn’s father provides an excellent emotional bedrock. There is a reveal regarding his work on the Death Star which brilliantly takes a somewhat illogical element of the original film’s climax and twists it into a defining piece of his characterization. It is in these moments, when it re-purposes or re-contextualizes information from the original trilogy, that Rogue One is at its best.
The much more immediately apparent highlight is the film’s climax. Once “Rogue One” actually forms and sets out on their main mission, the film kicks it into high gear. The assault on the Death Star plans is thrilling, gorgeously shot, and breathlessly edited. Director Gareth Edwards once again proves him to be an effects mastermind, staging one of the largest conflicts in the series’ history with aplomb. There is real tension, real loss, and one hell of an ending.
So Rogue One could have been better. Its less elegant approach to storytelling keeps it from being as engaging as it could be, and it relies too much on its audience having a love of and familiarity with the original 1977 film. But in its best moments, Rogue One is spectacular. As a case for Disney’s continued production of “Star Wars Stories,” it passes with flying colors.