Halfway through Rogue One, I started to futz with my hair (my habit for coping with boredom). After another 20 minutes I’d flipped the part of my mophead from right to left. This movie—a reckless jaunt through the Star Wars saga’s style with none of its substance—felt like an off-brand version of Disney World’s Star Tours ride. My nausea-prone stomach begged for mercy.
A strange sense of guilt also weighed down my gut. As the story kicked in and the new characters stumbled into place, spewing the script’s shoehorned references to the original trilogy, I searched my feelings and realized something unfortunate: Disney had duped me. A year ago, The Force Awakens reinvigorated my love for a culturally deified universe. The studio capitalized on that enthusiasm to win my ticket money for a movie that pays mere lip service to the series’ charms.
Director Gareth Edwards’ film is more cash grab than creative. There isn’t much to see beyond the propulsive climactic dogfights. As I watched, I found myself thinking back to the reviled Star Wars prequels with fondness. They’re aren’t great movies, but they did offer novel insights into George Lucas’ universe. Through Shakespearean politicking they featured characters and plots—good and bad—that can be picked up in future films. Nothing new in Rogue One can live past the end credits.
The Disney-produced midquel is a mathematical proof for something Star Wars fans have long accepted as a given. In a post-Order 66 galaxy, a ragtag team of rebels bands together to steal the Death Star plans for little reason other than that the rest of the saga exists. Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy belabor the story with exposition but can’t seem to find the oomph to make it matter. The plot clicks along with no impetus—it’s a Rube Goldberg machine of diplomatic bullsh*t and occasional bellicose tension leading to a decades-old foregone conclusion.
This film goes a notch further than The Force Awakens in terms of racially representative casting. Its cast features more men of color than ever before in Star Wars. It’s an important but incomplete step forward, given that not a single woman of color has a significant role. In fact, beyond Felicty Jones’s plucky Jyn Erso (leading lily-white brunette du jour) and Genevieve O’Reilly’s Mon Mothma (also white), there are barely any women at all.
The clockwork plot doesn’t give anyone in this international cast much to do, either. The movie equally reduces all of its actors to bit parts. It’s not that the ensemble doesn’t commit—it’s that the script only gives them one note to play. Jyn may be the least compelling protagonist in the saga. I barely got to know her in the first half of the film but for some exposition about her childhood, so her character’s most emotional scenes felt like they had no context or justification.
The rest of the cast are equally short-changed. Forest Whitaker plays radical semi-cyborg Saw Gerrera somewhere between sage-like and dangerous. Riz Ahmed nails the quiet nervous energy of Empire defector Bodhi Rook. Diego Luna brings charm and mistrust to rebel leader Cassian Andor. Ben Mendelsohn gives some good snarls as an Imperial bureaucrat, but he’s all bark and billowy cape. None of them get the time they deserve.
Rogue One also chokes on its half-hearted attempt to depict queerness. The rapport between Force-attuned Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and blaster-toting Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) could be read as a relationship—in a key scene, Baze says, “Good luck,” and Chirrut answers, “I don’t need luck; I have you”—but even that’s left too subtle to be substantive. The moment is emblematic of how the movie treats its characters like chess pieces. They suffer because its stakeless and cobbled-together narrative couldn’t care less about disposing with any of them.
The writers show considerable disrespect to James Earl Jones, who lends his famous voice to a damnably corny Darth Vader. The Sith Lord seems off, and not just because his shoddy lines include at least one atrocious pun. It’s Greig Fraser’s cinematography that ruins Vader’s return to the big screen; one moment he cloaks the villain in fitting shadow and smoke, the next throws him into garish light. These glitches make the series’ signature baddie as ill-defined a caricature as the rest of the cast. It’s also unclear why Vader’s even in the film; he walks on- and walks off-screen, offering all the menace of a video game cutscene. He might as well be an animatronic.
Rogue One boasts plenty of discomfiting choices, but its CGI-resurrected Peter Cushing presents the clearest cocktail of shock and nausea. The BAFTA-winning British actor died in 1994, but Edwards and his coven of animators raised him from the dead to reprise his original trilogy role. The result? A moral and aesthetic nightmare straight from the uncanny valley.
This would be excusable if Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry played Tarkin on set; the false Cushing was built on top of him) weren’t so involved in the story, but he is. Edwards doubles down on the CGI acting fiasco in a jaw-slackening final scene. As the film wraps up, we’re faced with yet another facsimiled famous persona that pushes the film nearly to self-parody.
Fakery verges on motif in this mess. Michael Giacchino’s score (composed in four weeks when reshoots ousted Alexandre Desplat) contains no memorable melodies, often resorting to unresolved riffs on John Williams’ famous main title and Force theme. The sloppy music befits a film barely held together. From the beginning, it’s unclear if Rogue One is meant to be a movie or a sizzle reel. The first 20-30 minutes are so haphazardly slapped into place that I could barely figure out what was going on, let alone care about the characters.
It doesn’t get better from there. A mid-film shootout on Jedha (denoted in a half-serious bubble font title card like every other location in the film) is so slovenly edited that it’s near impossible not to lose track of stormtroopers and rebels in the frame. In the finale on Scarif, Edwards enjoys sweeping shots of the Death Star and the palm tree-peppered battlefield on the planet below. Yet he loses himself in jitterbug cutting and camera angles whenever the action steps into tighter spaces.
Weitz and Gilroy’s hokey dialogue sounds like it was pulled straight out of fan fiction. Saw Garrera bellows, “Save the Rebellion! Save the dream!” at Jyn at a key turning point, but the line sounds more apt for a college basketball team pep talk than an anti-fascist guerrilla operation. The Rebels also talk about hope so much and without irony (“A rebellion built on hope” adorns the movie’s poster) that I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney sold a “Platinum Hope Bundle” of Episode IV and Rogue One when the latter drops on Blu-ray sometime next spring. Each of these Rebel-rousing bits is cheesy and blandly commercial—only making the characters feel more anonymous.
Last year, plenty decried J.J. Abrams’ foray into Star Wars as blasphemy (at least one critic called it a forgery). But Edwards’ film makes The Force Awakens seem far more necessary by comparison. Sure, it photocopies the plot of A New Hope for both commercial and explicitly thematic purposes. But Abrams’ movie has witty dialogue and meaningful relationships between unique characters, boasting a complex villain in Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. And it returns to the past to open the door to an uncharted future (fingers crossed that Rian Johnson makes Episode VIII the weirdest yet).
Edwards, Weitz and Gilroy turn to the past only to put us right back where Star Wars started. They milk two-plus mirthless hours from three lines in that original movie’s opening crawl. The closed loop of this film’s plot sutures Episode III so hamfistedly to Episode IV that it all but erases itself.
Rogue One desperately tries to sell itself as “an experience.” That makes sense, because it isn’t really a movie. It’s a bizarre, half-baked machine, so intent on offering a thrill ride through a beloved universe that it barely pretends to tell a worthwhile story at all.
Verdict: Movie Fail