Come back, Star Wars prequels, all is forgi…
Ok maybe not. But given the choice, I think I’d still prefer to re-watch George Lucas’ misguided trilogy rather than this latest soulless snorefest from Disney. As terrible and stilted the prequels are, they’re at least terrible in a zany, colourful and unique way and whatever else they made me feel it wasn’t boredom.
Rogue One is the first entry in the probably never-ending stream of stand-alone Star Wars films, unconnected to the main Skywalker saga but also acting as a prequel to A New Hope. It tells the story of how the Rebels managed to get their hands on the plans for the Death Star… which to be honest didn’t really set my interest alight when I first heard it, because honestly who cares how they got them? Still, there was no reason why they couldn’t have made an entertaining flick about it, and the largely positive reviews persuaded me to watch it.
I guess I should mention some positives before I tear this movie apart. Gareth Edwards, the director, has an eye for visuals, composition and sense of scale, and the movie has some beautiful locations and elegant images. The opening scenes, shot in Iceland, were especially striking. Darth Vader’s screentime is pure unadulterated fanservice, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the appearance of one of the cinema’s greatest villains thrilling. The Star Wars action porn in the third act, involving just about everything fans loved about the action in the original trilogy (X-Wings! TIE fighters! Walkers!) is undoubtedly well-shot and is probably the main source of goodwill this movie seems to have.
Unfortunately, while Edwards has a way with effects and action, he’s got no clue how to handle human characters and drama. Say what you will about J.J. Abrams’ shortcomings as a storyteller and the underwritten, inconsistent characterisation that plagued The Force Awakens, he’s phenomenal at getting lively, natural performances and squeezing the last drop of charisma and chemistry from his cast. In Rogue One, flat line deliveries rule the day and no one is allowed charisma. You can see some actors try and inject individuality into their characters, but because the director has no clue about who these people are they’re getting no help from him and just end up flailing. Everyone is dull and drab as dishwater, including the main character of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, just as wasted here as he was in Doctor Strange), an engineer who plays a key role in the creation of the Death Star. Jyn’s relationship with her father is supposed to be at the heart of the film, but it spends no time on the father/daughter bond before the Erso family’s peace is broken by the arrival of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, need I say he’s wasted as well?), director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial military. Galen is taken, his wife is killed, and Jyn escapes, and before you know it boom she’s a sullen grown-up miscreant who gets recruited for a mission by the Rebellion. Because we never get to know Jyn as a person, all the father/daughter emotional beats land with an indifferent thud and her later transformation into the leader for the Rebel cause is completely unconvincing.
The multiple supporting characters are even flatter than Jyn if it’s possible, and are introduced in a rushed manner as the first act hops manically from planet to planet, hastily throwing in a bunch of ciphers I never got to care about. Donnie Yen’s blind warrior monk comes closest to being a distinct personality and cracks the film’s only joke to get a chuckle out of me. The official comic relief is the former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), but his brand of humour is so at odds with the film’s overall vibe it feels out of place. The absolute nadir however is the ghastly CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing as the Grand Moff Tarkin, which made me feel like I was suddenly dropped into one of my brother’s video games. Sorry but the technology is not anywhere near good enough yet to simulate a real living human being, and this distracting uncanny valley creation gave me the creeps.
The idea behind Rogue One would naturally lend itself to a classic heist film, but the movie wastes the entire first two acts on detours and boring Erso family drama before it finally gets to the all-important mission and the big action scenes. But because my emotional involvement by that time was nil, the action simply feels exhausting and the tragic loss of life doesn’t move. There’s an attempt there by the filmmakers to try a more nuanced, morally grey approach, but in the end it all feels like mere lip service. It’s still about the good guys mowing down the bad guys without any qualms, and no real humanity given to the Imperials. Which is not really a problem in a Star Wars universe with its black-and-white, fairytale-like morality, but it really doesn’t work in a “serious”, supposedly gritty movie that sets out to be the Saving Private Ryan of Star Wars.
I’m still interested in Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII, but the Star Wars stand-alone movies are off to a dismal start and may be showing up the limitations of this universe.