“Rogue One” is, first and foremost, as the film’s subtitle implies, “A Star Wars Story”, but it is also A Gareth Edwards Film. And Edwards’ two preceding films, “Monsters” and “Godzilla”, were, as those titles suggest, principally about the monsters. In the former, romantic squabbling partners were drowned out by the eerie atmosphere surrounding the extremely ambiguous titular creatures. In the latter, Godzilla’s climactic tussle with other gigantic monsters causes the humans to realize their piddly place among these beasts. In other words, whether deliberately or not, Edwards created films in which underdeveloped, un-charismatic characters felt part and parcel to the elemental universes into which they were cast.
In “Rogue One” the monsters are fashioned as the Galactic Empire and their Death Star. After all, this film is set in the run-up to the very first “Star Wars” film, filling in the blanks of how Princess Leia Organa’s small band of rebels managed to steal the secret plans of the planet destroying battle station. In telling the story, Edwards, true to his style, comes across more taken with the rebellion itself rather than the specific people populating it. Not that Edwards and his writers Christ Weitz and Tony Gilroy don’t try to give us a strong protagonist in the tersely named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones).
It’s commendable, of course, that “Rogue One”, like “The Force Awakens”, opts for a female main character, but Jyn is less important as herself than as the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the man tasked by the Empire to erect the Death Star. The movie never gives her traits and never gives her real dialogue. Jones is therefore left to build the character from behavior, such as a splendid shot aboard some sort of transport prison spacecraft where Jones’s ferocious, bulging eyes emit a genuine pent-up rage, and which suggest a female Snake Plissken when the Rebel Alliance recruits her as a means to find her father and eradicate this Death Star. This is the attitude Jones plays to, but the script awkwardly jerks her character from criminal to hero and she never goes all in on this “transformation”, stranding her in some unhappy medium.
There are remnants of a tougher, darker film, in those early eyes of Jones and in the early sequences where Jyn and rebel intel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) drop into some remote outpost called Jedha, prowling the streets among a Mos Eisley-ish crowd, having secret conversations in dark alleys while Storm Troopers lurk around every corner. It is not, frankly, unlike that sequence in “Zero Dark Thirty” where the Americans are trying to get a fix on UBL’s courier, except from the point-of-view of the courier, which in a “Star Wars” movie would have been pretty radical, portraying the Rebel Alliance less as heroes of a space serial and more as true terroristic insurgents.
The movie never commits to that version, just as it never commits to the darker aspects of Jones’s performance, ultimately opting for a more conventional action-adventure in which a small gaggle comes together to fight the good fight. And that’s fine. But in these middle portions, where less plan-stealing thrills unfold, the people on screen are necessary to sustain interest and momentum and no one has any personality, aside a re-programmed imperial droid who, in the voice of Alan Tudyk, delivers his one-liners with a forced cadence, an exasperated “Do I Have To?” It’s a problem when the film’s most memorable people are digital re-creations of previously existing characters.
In these middle portions you can sense the rumored re-shoots and re-writes, with Disney saying “Lighten up!” But Edwards doesn’t know how to lighten up, more consumed by serious ideas than fanciful ones, which is why The Force is nothing more than a bit player in “Rogue One.” One scene finds a Rebel council debating whether or not to go after the Death Star or run and hide. As Inspiration 101, it barely flies, written in terrible platitudes, but a tantalizing idea of the rebels less as a simpleminded united front than squabbling splinters that eventually must unite nevertheless emerges.
That comes through in the conclusion, which brings the alliance’s “first victory against the evil Galactic Empire” that is referenced in the original 1977 scrawl to dramatic life. Here Edwards feels in his wheelhouse, rendering a kinetic battle that cuts between space and the planet below, where attention to detail is everything, like a shot from a Turbolaser turret in which the blast is incredibly deep and echoey, reverberating through you like the bass at some rock concert. What’s more, the frustrating lack of character strangely, wonderfully becomes a strength in this wrap-up. All the rebels come together in the name of their alliance, willing to give themselves up their beliefs, which makes even the extras who are deposited onto the battlefield just to get killed off less typical collateral damage than noble unknown soldiers. Nameless X-wing pilots who get shot down become no different than Jyn Erso, which is problematic, yet also kind of beautiful. No one is greater than the cause.
That also speaks to “Star Wars” more broadly, I suppose, and why these films continue to get produced and reap success, whoever is at the helm, whoever is in them. Sadly, Jyn Ersos will always be a dime a dozen while Star Wars™ will never not be worth its weight in gold.