The standalone film set in the Star Wars universe, Rogue One, is a mostly-successful outing that tells the story about how the rebels came to possess the plans to the Death Star, the planet-killing weapon of mass destruction that was destroyed at the very end of the first Star Wars movie. Rogue One takes us back in time a bit, back before Luke Skywalker became involved with the cause, and tells a darker story than we might be used to in this kind of universe.
Star Wars and its expanded universe is no stranger to courting darker themes, but Rogue One seems to take it a step further–without wallowing in misery. For the first time I can think of in film, the Rebel Alliance is shown to employ some underhanded methods to get information that they require. Only momentarily, though, does the film dwell on the fact that making lives expendable “for a greater good” is something that the Empire might say.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is recruited by the Rebels in order to make contact with the extremist Saw (Forest Whitaker) who may have information on the super secret Imperial weapon we all know as the Death Star, but to them at this time is just a nameless, yet-unseen terror that looms about the cosmos. Saw raised Jyn when she was a child, her mother dead and her father (Mads Mikkelsen) recruited by the Empire for the purpose of creating unfathomably powerful weapons used to crush their opposition.
It’s at the Rebellion where Jyn meets Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) who seems to follow the importance of orders above all else. He’ll kill if told to kill and he’ll kill if its the easiest way out of a sticky situation. He’s a seemingly amoral antihero, not so much in the tradition of Han Solo because he’s not in it for himself, he’s in it for the greater cause, but his loyalty to the uprising veers dangerously close to fascism.
My main problems with Rogue One are with the fact that there are interesting themes that not enough is done with. The idea of the Rebellion sometimes acting questionably, or even like a terrorist group in order to get what they need, are touched upon and then the film seems to remember, oh yeah, they’re the classically good guys–let’s get back to that. Cassian will be on the verge of committing a political assassination, gets reamed out something good by Jyn, and then in the very, very next scene, it’s like nothing even happened; there’s even an attempted motivational speech and powerful monologue from Jyn all about the importance of the Rebellion.
Ben Mendelsohn as the film’s new villain Orson Krennic is actually quite well written and acted, and it’s a shame that the movie didn’t do more with him, opting to return to some familiar faces (including an ill-advised CGI rendering of Peter Cushing’s character from A New Hope). He’s petty, he’s scary… he’s really good! But, like many of the characters, not enough is done with him.
The characters, in large part in this film, just aren’t given a whole lot to work with. Instead of focusing on an entire band of outcasts that make good, the film would have been better served focusing on just a couple of them. Because, stretched too thin, the film’s focus on these people who would do so much, and sacrifice so much, are only archetypes and not seemingly real, living people. None of them has any sort of personality that I can recall. They all just sort of exist to say lines and go from one place to another.
But there is a lot to admire about Rogue One. It doesn’t pull very many punches and the way the movie ends is something completely atypical than I’ve seen from a big-budget movie in many, many years. I admired the films chutzpah. I admired a lot of how it was made. It was a well-made and well-told little story set in a familiar universe. It’s just not much more than that. It had the potential to be bigger and better than anything we’d seen from that universe in a long time, and it kind of settled for less. I wish it had embraced some of its darker themes and that its characters had more to say and do. But at the end, when the film had all its pieces stacked, it was a hell of a spectacle.