As the Disney Star Wars universe continues to expand, it moves ever closer to enveloping the narrative in a feedback loop of formulaic plot devices and fan service. And this years installment is the next big leap towards the galaxy far far away’s storytelling black hole.
Director Gareth Edwards bring us Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a straight up action adventure war movie that fills in the blanks of how the plans for the Empire’s secret weapon ‘The Deathstar’ came into the hands of Princess Leia and the rebellion. Billed as a stand alone story yet one that leads directly into the original trilogy, the film exists somewhere between spin off and prequel. This is a grey area that allows the filmmakers to take stabs at originality, yet dip where necessary into the success of George Lucas’ original Space Opera series.
We are given a completely new set of main heroes, all of which I have had to google and re-google since the screening to remind me of their names. The least forgettable is the protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). We are told that Jyn has been forced to dabble in the illegal underbelly of fringe society since being made an orphan by the Empire who killed her mother Lyra (Valene Kane), and abducted her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen).
Dr Erso was a Galactic Empire scientist until he began to abhor their capacity for evil and flee to live as a recluse. Unfortunately for Galen, his life in peaceful seclusion on the planet Lah’mu is interrupted when the Empire find him, and blackmail him to begin work on their star shaped planet destroyer.
Whilst this is a back story with much dramatic promise, the film fails to explore its emotional value. From the opening scene in which Jyn watches her mother get shot with blank faced dispassion, her character is underdeveloped and uninspired, even 15 years later where we pick up her story as an unwilling puppet of the rebellion. Galen’s conflict would have been interesting to see, though instead he is used more sparingly as a device to change Jyns mind about how politics shapes her life upon his death, at which point she is impassioned to combat the Empire’s evil; something she had since been ignoring.
Its a similar story for the rest of the main cast that join Jyn on her mission. There’s her accompanying pilot, a cut rate, stern faced Han Solo named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) who merely alludes to the idea of a damaged past we might begin to care about. There’s also the Sheldon Cooper bot K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a strategical analyst droid who only supplies incessant smug-intellect comic relief. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) gain the film a much needed tick in the Chinese demographic outreach box. The pair are responsible for much of the films most impressive action sequences but remain characteristically hollow, which is specifically disappointing with Chirrut’s promising role as the minority force believer amongst the sceptics. Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) completes the set as a Galactic Empire defect who delivers Galen Erso’s message to the rebellion of how to exploit an inherent, deliberate flaw in ‘The Deathstar’. So, he’s there too.
While J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens shares many of the issues of Rogue One along with numerous problems of its own, it did at least manage to give us characters with a bit of depth, charisma, and chemistry. Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren, whilst running almost parallel to many character’s in the original series, were at least enjoyable to watch. Their characters were fleshed out and offered some youthful nuance to the characters that they resemble from the original trilogy.
This new bunch however moves from hell to high water with little emotional baggage for the audience to attach onto, which is particularly drab when almost everyone in the audience is aware of the success of their mission. Whilst they find themselves in seemingly unsurmountable danger: escaping a planet shot by ‘The Deathstar’ and constantly battling with a distinct minority against the armour clad storm troopers in true “we’ll fight them on the beaches” WW2 style, I didn’t fear for their safety, question their odds, or really even care if they died.
Some have been quick to call Rogue One a grittier look into the Star Wars universe, referring to its ending in which the entire main cast is killed off as gutsy and refreshing. Whilst it is true that we don’t often see mainstream cinema (let alone Disney) make such a move for fear of a universe expanding dead end, it feels less like a bold risk, and more like a swift sweeping under the rug of a mediocre, intangible cast. Gritty, this film is not. We are told of labour camps but never see them, we hear of the rebel extremist Saw Gerrera’s (Forest Whitaker) deplorable tactics yet only taken as far down that rabbit hole as his mind reading octopus, and treated to some of the most PG fighting and death sequences to grace the big screen.
What the film borrows from the original series doesn’t concern itself with expansion or refinement, but with safety, comfort and nostalgia. From the computer animated Grand Moff Tarkin (a long dead Peter Cushing) to the stale “may the force be with you’s” there are numerous occasions where the film cannot help but pander to the insatiable starving hunger of its fandom, despite it not enhancing the atmosphere or plot of the movie whatsoever.
However, the sure fire ace in the hole that is Darth Vader was delicately dealt with and if anything under used. The infamous villain, (unlike some of the call back characters such as Senator Oganna, C3PO and R2D2) is a necessary and interesting component in the timeline.
While something about the outfit felt slightly off (the helmet?, the neck bit?), and one of his few lines was an uncharacteristic pun; his unnerving presence in a scene persists and resonates to produce a level of fan service that moves beyond cheap thrills and into the kind of effortless entertainment that the classic characters offer if used correctly.
The best and final moments of the film belong to Vader. Mercilessly and skilfully slaying rebel soldiers at a walking pace as they scurry to secure the stolen plans showcases Vader as a character so brilliantly untouchable; even by a soulless narrative.
While it looked good (clean), and there were some well made action sequences and wide, expansive shots of the universe and its planets that distracted me for a bit from the droll plot, these features aren’t hard to come by nowadays. Looking good isn’t just a matter of 4k, every grain of sand, every smooth rocket ship interior; its about building environments and atmospheres that we can be interested in; of which the Star Wars universe has in abundance. Walking through the busy markets of Jedha, we watch a conversation between Jyn and Cassian with the audio isolated on their words, silencing the ambience they are surrounded by and smothering these lifeless characters with the impossible task of empowering the scene alone.
We are introduced to numerous planets and locations that we’re only given a glimpse into in order to make the universe feel expansive and diverse, but not actually show the realities of either. Instead, Edwards attempts to build an atmosphere that gives his audience “that Star Wars feeling” with blasts from the Star Wars past, including overly hostile alien guy who brushes shoulders with our dear Jyn to let us know she’s not in Kansas anymore. Then there’s a young Blue Leader, Gold Leader, and Red Leader telling us they’re standing by so that we can pretend we’re watching one of the older, better space battles instead of thinking why we’re seeing another one.
Each new Star Wars film since the prequels is a dilemma. The original series created an enraptured fandom that the prequels largely disappointed, and so now each director must tread carefully between innovation and nostalgia, in order to make sure they don’t make the same mistake that George Lucas did when he attempted to expand the universe.
While Rogue One moved slightly closer to the innovation end of the spectrum, which is a more positive direction than that of The Force Awakens, it failed to assert its story or its characters outside of the universe it attempted to stand alone from. After such a long time with blue balls, the fandom, for whom I’ve been told on many occasions this movie was made for, are happy just to have Star Wars back in their lives in whichever capacity, so I guess the film does what it set out to do.
There is the chance for a director to make the most of the love that much of the world has for Star Wars, its side stories and extended universe could be handled with wealthy frivolity that harnesses experimentation and shifts the emphasis away from dot-to-dot plot lines that focus more on majority audience satisfaction rather than telling a good story. Instead, and much more obviously, what we are seeing is the result of lazy tugs on the udder of George Lucas’ cash cow, because the public majority can’t get enough of Star Wars, and this is a much too sweet escape from laborious ingenuity and risk taking.