Directed by Gareth Edwards | Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy | 133 min
As this review is arriving late—for reasons—I’m giving myself the license to be a little spoilery. I figure the hardcore fans will have seen the film already, likely more than once, and to those who have yet to take it in, well, hopefully you won’t mind if I dig into some plot points beyond the 20-minute mark.
I’ll start with what I liked.
From an aesthetic perspective, Gareth Edwards is clearly an inspired choice for a Star Wars spin-off. The Monsters and Godzilla director brings exactly the right indie freshness to the film, the right kind of rough-hewn spice. The shadows are deep and the robots are scuffed. The production values are gorgeous—from the locations to the costumes to the props. They make JJ Abrams’ efforts on The Force Awakens look clinical and unimaginative—his specialty, well-made fan fiction—where this feels like a new author playing with the original trilogy’s constituent raw material.
The casting is terrific. Felicity Jones is Jyn Erso, a woman at odds with both the Empire and the Alliance, but recruited by the latter to help locate her father, Galen (the always excellent Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist employed by the former to build the Death Star. Or something like that—the plotting here is a little muddy. It feels like the reasons the rebels go to the trouble to locate and free Jyn from an Empire stockade are a little unclear. I don’t think they really need her to locate the characters she eventually finds, which makes the stakes in the opening act feel a little undefined.
And why is it important we know these details about Khyber Crystals? Could it be this one of the subplots erased when Tony Gilroy was brought in to rewrite the film’s third act? Khyber Crystals sound a little too much like midichlorians to me.
Now we’re getting into the problems.
Rogue One suffers a little from that strange issue common among many modern blockbusters—it feels both rushed and strangely static—and too-familiar in the plot pacing: The action sequences arrive like clockwork, and when a too-large passel of new characters are introduced—a conspicuously international group of cool-looking dudes played by Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna, Wen Jiang, and Riz Ahmed—none are terribly fleshed out. The talented hand of Joss Whedon would have been especially welcome here, with his gift for defining an ensemble like he did with The Avengers and the Star Wars-esque TV space-drama Firefly.
We do have the next best thing: Firefly‘s Wash, Alan Tudyk, doing the voice of the funny, opinionated droid K-2S0. His presence is really welcome, because otherwise there aren’t many laughs in Rogue One. And, of all these radical dudes, only one of them really gets an arc. Even the great Ben Mendelsohn, playing Krennic, the slimy Imperial officer tasked with bringing in the Death Star on line, doesn’t do much more than glower menacingly.
But back to what works.
This is satisfyingly a war movie. Even better, it’s a commandos-on-a-mission movie, a great war movie sub-genre. There’s just enough mythology connective tissue to remind you of where you are, like an appearance by a pair of recognizable bad guys early on and a pair of recognizable good guys later. Both are pretty sweet, though opportunities to give legendary supporting cast members Biggs Darklighter or Wedge Antilles some real love are sadly missed. Yes, Darth Vader does appear, though there’s something weird about the way he moves. His presence means at least one person swings a lightsaber, which, for me, is the least requirement for any Star Wars movie. And there are moments when Vader is truly terrifying.
The awkward plotting in the set-up—which continues through a disappointing sequence on a gloomy, mountainous planet where the rebels bomb an Imperial base in the rain—happily resolves itself in a more satisfying finale, complete with the movie’s single, excellent space battle.
Now, here’s my biggest beef.
What I struggled with most was the CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. There’s been some writing online about this, with plenty coming down on the side supporting the technology and even those who barely noticed it at all. My problem with it isn’t based on an ethical argument—I don’t think Cushing should have been brought back to life via infernal means, for example. My problem is he’s undeniably, distractingly in the Uncanny Valley.
At first I was sort of impressed at the filmmakers’ verve to do this, but by Tarkin’s second or third appearance the special effect felt like hubris. You really think this is working? It’s awful. The animation simply isn’t there yet, and it’s sheer, bloody arrogance to think that it is. At no time did I ever believe Tarkin was a human being, and he’s not the only original-trilogy actor represented here by a CGI creation. Another is painfully de-aged, and needn’t have been. A little creativity with that scene and we wouldn’t have needed to see that individual at all, maybe just a hand and a voice. And now, especially, that would have seemed a much classier move. I hope, at the very least, the performers (or their estates) got well-paid.
What works best about this eighth Star Wars movie…
It’s wonderfully, undeniably self-contained, with just the final few minutes an elegant coda deftly setting up the trilogy we all know and love. And even though it’s two degrees of separation from the key mythology, risking a much lesser level of thematic engagement, it’s sure a hell of a lot better than those other prequels, now almost entirely forgotten.