“Rogue One” is the first “Star Wars” film without the word “episode” in the title, but other than not following the main characters or narrative arc of those previous installments, what does that really mean? This was LucasFilm’s chance to set the tone for what the “A Star Wars Story” movies could be. So far, it’s more of the same, which is great news for “Star Wars” fans.
Count me among them. Director Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”) vision is sweeping and expansive. The world-building he does as we follow Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and other Rebels to a few new planets in the galaxy echoes the same creativity and curiosity that defined George Lucas’ vision. Edwards’ sense of scale, as proven by his debut film, “Monsters,” and again in “Godzilla,” has a lot to offer the “Star Wars” universe and it makes “Rogue One” feel somehow more realistic and more imaginative at the same time.
Ultimately, Edwards applies these skills in service of “Star Wars” fans. At one point during its marketing campaign, it seemed like “Rogue One” would bring us a grittier, ‘war film’ version of a “Star Wars” movie, but the final cut, while it has grittier moments, plays out as homage to the original trilogy far more than a visionary interpretation of it. Edwards mimics a lot of the shots that defined “A New Hope” in ways that feel like a warm blanket of nostalgia. At the same time, you wonder if that indebtedness to the “source material” kept audiences from experiencing “Star Wars” in a way they never had before. That said, there’s only so much criticism you can hand a film for not being something it isn’t.
The script runs into much of the same kind of trap. Penned by Chris Weitz (2015’s “Cinderella”) and Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” films) from a story by Gary Whitta and Jon Knoll, “Rogue One” finds itself locked into much of the same formula, tropes and storytelling devices of previous “Star Wars” films. We follow a young person swept up in a large-scale conflict she didn’t ask to be a part of who meets up with other unlikely comrades sharing similar views and ultimately becomes the hero she was meant to be. “The Force Awakens” approached its story the same way and worked, so it’s no surprise we get something similar in this film.
Despite the “Star Wars” cliches from droid characters who steal the show (Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO is huge highlight) to climactic sequences in rooms where there’s a long way to fall, “Rogue One” does have great story pacing and strong dialogue. The characters are also quite interesting, from the troubled but obedient Rebel soldier Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to the enigmatic, war-torn extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) — the film just doesn’t get to explore them with any depth, even Jyn.
True, the new characters in “Force Awakens” didn’t require much backstory to grab hold of our affections, but somehow, perhaps because they’re all adults, there’s not enough to forge an emotional connection. Undoubtedly “Rogue One” doesn’t tug at your heartstrings in the same way as “Force Awakens,” but the lack of a strong emotional component doesn’t detract from the viewing experience in the way that, say, the prequel trilogy hurt itself with weak character-driven subplots. On the whole, whereas “Force Awakens” had stronger story notes, “Rogue One” is more visually arresting. Both lean a lot on the traits that have made “Star Wars” films so great in the past.
The minds at Disney’s LucasFilm have shown a strong ability to identify these traits and build extremely entertaining movies around them that resonate with fans. They’ve honed in on and identified the “Star Wars” brand and have been very protective of it in these first two films. Consequently, these movies can fairly be labeled as “safe.” “Rogue One” was the film we thought would take more risks, and it just doesn’t. Then again, it didn’t really need to. It’s a perfectly rousing space odyssey despite that familiarity. And considering “Rogue One” literally sets up “A New Hope,” thereby playing into the main “Star Wars” narrative, perhaps it was silly to think that this first anthology/spin-off film would be completely distinctive.
The debate between whether a beloved franchise should push the envelope or adopt the inertia strategy of sticking to what it does best doesn’t have a right answer. So far, we know that the “Star Wars” strategy has been the latter. The big picture question is whether that strategy — if LucasFilm continues to employ it — has legs, or if audiences and perhaps even adoring fans will grow tired of it.
That said — and this is pure speculation as both a big “Star Wars” fan and a fan of good movies and storytelling — it’s possible LucasFilm’s intention with it’s first main “episode” and first spin-off was to dip its toe back in the galaxy far, far away and build fan trust in order to take bigger risks in the future. Maybe that’s giving them too much credit, but they have certainly earned that position given the quality of these new movies on the whole.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy (screenplay), Gary Whitta, John Knoll (story)
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk (voice)