In the world of videogames there’s a term that’s been come to used, at least amongst people with some interest in the financial side of the industry, called “annualization.” This is used when a company, usually a major publisher like Activision or Ubisoft realizes that one of their series is a really popular cash cow and put enough resources into it to have multiple teams working on multiple sequels to it at once so that they can reliably put out a new installment of the franchise every single year. This makes sense for sports games like Madden but becomes more problematic when it’s applied to series that are actually supposed to have stories like the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise and even when it’s applied to something like “Call of Duty” which doesn’t have a continuous story it still sort of kills a lot of goodwill from consumers who complain that they’re being bilked into buying the same game over and over again, and even if they’re okay with this in principle there’s no doubt that this practice sort of kills that anticipation that players build up for new installments of franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” who take a slower approach and make each installment an event. This same practice isn’t unheard of in the world of film, in fact you could argue that the Marvel movies have been doing it for years now, but it seems to have really taken a hold now that Disney is also trying to do something like it with their newly acquired Star Wars license. Now for basically the first time there’s a Star Wars movie in theaters that isn’t an official “Episode,” a sort of Star Wars “Halo: Reach” that’s officially called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Rogue One is set in the days leading up to the start of the original Star Wars film and focuses on a woman named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has been coerced into working as an engineer for the Empire. With this in her past and her mother dead Jyn has seemingly grown up to be something of a streetwise rebel. Her parentage does catch the attention of the Rebel Alliance, who believe that Galen may be working with an Imperial general named Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) on a super weapon that could end the Rebel Alliance once and for all. As such a task force led by a guy named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and featuring a reprogramed Imperial robot called K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) break her out of prison and bring her on a mission to find Galen and determine what he’s up to and if necessary neutralize him.
When I first heard the title Rogue One I had envisioned it as a sort of Star Wars flyboy movie that would focus on a squadron of X-Wing pilots, but the film is more of something along the lines of The Guns of Naverone with a team of misfits setting out to retrieve one of cinema’s most famous MacGuffins. There are definitely some good ideas at its center. In essence the movie is trying to give the viewer a better idea of what life under the Empire leading up to the original trilogy and what the fighting in the titular wars was like for those in the trenches rather than the VIPs we follow through the other movies. That’s a great idea in theory, but certain aspects of the execution here leave something to be desired and the movie gets off to a real shaky start. The film doesn’t begin with an opening text scroll like the other Star Wars movies, which is a smart way to differentiate it from the “real” Star Wars movies with episode numbers, but the movie could maybe use one because the first act of the movie feels like something of a jumble of names we don’t know and political machinations that could have used a bit of extra exposition to untangle.
A big part of the problem may simply be the new characters that the film introduces just aren’t that strong or maybe that the movie doesn’t do a very job of establishing a connection between them and the audience. Jyn Erso is a character that certainly seems interesting in theory and Felicity Jones does bring a certain something to her, but at the end of the day she’s a bit one-dimensional on the page and her motivations seem a bit inconsistent. The movie desperately wants her to be this aloof Han Solo type but she spends the whole movie trying to protect her father’s honor and the movie never really seems to decide how many fucks she gives in general. Similarly Cassian Andor just seems like a very one note company man and other characters like a defecting Imperial pilot with brain damage or something played by Riz Ahmed mostly just seems to confuse matters and the movie just never makes other characters like Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus just kind of seem to be here out of a nebulous obligation for the movie to build a team rather than because there’s any real reason for their presence in the film. Not every character here is lame, the robot K-2SO is pretty charming for example, but few of them really leave the same kind of impression as the iconic characters from the original trilogy or even some of the new characters introduced in The Force Awakens. Hell, for all their shortcomings even the prequel trilogy probably introduced more characters that people are likely to remember the names of than this movie.
Beyond that the film is frustrating in that it establishes this darker tone and puts forward some interesting ideas only to then squander them. In particular I was not impressed with the way the film suggests that the Rebel Alliance had its shortcomings and destructive tendencies only to fail to really explore them. For example, the initial mission that Jyn Erso is sent on is to find a guy named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who Mon Mothma labels as an extremist Rebel who has ultimately proven to be a liability to the Alliance. That’s an interesting idea but it goes nowhere, we never really see what makes this guy a Rebel extremist or what he’s up to. When we meet him he’s certainly an interesting looking character but all he actually does is give Jyn the next piece of the puzzle and send her off to the next location. Later we’re left to deal with a tension within the group as they debate over whether to assassinate Galen Erso, but the stakes to this are never really clear. We as an audience know that whatever harm Galen can do has already been done and if it hasn’t then what is the urgency to deal with him? Later still we have to deal with what is essentially one of these stock standard movie situations where the hero is right about something but the Rebel Alliance acts as this artificial roadblock to the “man of action” who wants to do something and when the Rebels have a change of heart on this point it isn’t terribly clear why.
Having said all that, the film kind of redeems itself in its third act. It probably isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with a big battle scene which is classic Star Wars with the action cutting between three or four different aspects of the action scene each one of them interesting in their own way. It isn’t just that spectacle that makes this third act work though, it also does a lot of clever things to connect the movie to the beginning of the original Star Wars in ways that are impressively seamless. I was also impressed with the film’s willingness to have a rather dark ending that isn’t afraid to leave things in a pretty grim place to set up why the Revels so desperately need “a new hope.” Of course the film’s interest in recreating aspects of the original Star Wars does have some drawbacks. For one thing, Grand Moff Tarkin is a character in the film, which is narratively logical but it with Peter Cushing having died in 1994 the filmmakers decided to use CGI to resurrect him, an idea I might have been willing to roll with if the technology was there but the result is decidedly a trip into the uncanny valley. I don’t know that I would have wanted them to recast the character either so I guess I wish they had left him out or maybe done his scenes with those blue hued hologram things or something. Their decision to bring back Darth Vader for a few scenes was also done with mixed results. You’d think his costume would make him easy enough to recreate, but there’s just something different about him… maybe David Prowse deserves more credit than he gets.
It’s been a truism in filmmaking that if a movie has a lousy ending it will undue a lot of goodwill a movie has built up and if you have a great ending audiences will forgive a lot of earlier mistakes and Rogue One may prove that to be true. The film’s last third does indeed really leave you just about ready to completely forgive how poorly written the first two acts are, but not entirely. I don’t think time and repeat viewings are going to be kind to this movie, the thrill of seeing Darth Vader unleash on some Rebels is going to diminish over time and the unfulfilled potential of the film’s exploration of the messy side of rebellion is going to remain a disappointment. I must say though, that I feel like a bit conflicted about my reaction to this one. When The Force Awakens came out I thought it was pretty cool but complained that it stuck too rigidly to the formula of the previous movies and relied too much on old characters and nostalgia, and now here comes a movie that boldly eschews the old formula and plays by a new set of rules and it’s still not really what I want. I guess that’s what’s frustrating about the movie: it seems to have the right idea and go about it the right way, it just botches the execution along the way and doesn’t handle its best ideas the right way. Despite all that, on balance there is definitely enough here to make the movie a mostly worthwhile experience as the best parts work like gangbusters, it’s just that you’re kind of left with what could have been.