For the next couple of years, this time of the year will be Star Wars time. Rogue One is the first, of a series of films, that explore the Star Wars universe that exists outside the family saga that we know so far. The goal is to expand the universe and show more variety in locations and characters. In this first spin-off movie we finally learn how the plans, that lead to the destruction of the Deathstar in Episode 4, get into the hands of the Rebels. A mild spoiler warning for this review.
The film starts without the usual text scroll, which immediately sets a different feel right from the beginning. We see a planet and what seems to be an imperial transporter, landing close to some kind of farm. We meet Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). We learn that Galen once worked on a secret project of the Empire and that Krennic wants him back. Of course things spiral out of control when Krennic confronts Galen. Galen’s wife gets killed and his young daughter Jyn manages to hide. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a friend of Galen, picks her up. We don’t get to see anything about the relationship between Saw Gerrera and Jyn. How it develops and what difficulties they faced in the years to come. Next thing we know is that Jyn is in her early 20s. She winds up in the hands of the Rebels due to the investigation work of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). He’s with the Rebels for a long time and when we see him in action for the first time, there is no doubt that the means of the Rebel Alliance aren’t the pure good either. Whatever it takes! They know they have to use questionable tactics to be able to compete with the Empire. The Rebels know that Jyn’s father is a key player in building a new super weapon for the Empire. So they recruit her to find him. Their first step is to visit a planet called Jedha where an independent source claims to have captured Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), an Imperial freighter pilot, that carries critical infos about that super weapon and Galen Erso’s involvement. On Jedha they find Saw Gerrera who captured the pilot. Saw Gerrera once was a key player in the Rebellion but somehow departed and went his own ways. Not much backstory there as well. Before Jyn and Cassian find Saw Gerrera they meet two folks in Jedha City, the blind Cirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who both decide to join the cause. We learn that Jedha City is unter control of the Empire for a while now. Our two new heroes once protected the Jedi temple on that planet and since the Empire arrived there, are pretty much out of work. Together they wind up in Saw Gerrera’s hands and the fact that Jyn has a connection to Saw opens opportunities. Unfortunately the Death Star arrives at Jedha and the Imperial Command decides to do a weapon test before these opportunities can be used by our heroes. Apocalyptic destruction is happening while our team of questionable heroes manages to escape. The former Imperial pilot provides them with a location of Jyn’s father and the hunt for the ultimate truth begins.
This movie has had a ton of reshoots. So many, that lots of material we got to see in the Trailers, where not even in the finished film. I don’t think that was planned. There was talk that Disney wasn’t too happy with the dark material they saw in an earlier cut of the film. So they decided to add more uplifting and alternative material to the film. They fact that there were production problems was kind of noticable in the film. At least to me. Most of the sprinkled in humour fell flat and felt awkwardly timed. In the first 40 minutes of the film we visit tons of locations and meet even more characters. The film is jumping from location to location and back and forth. It’s very irritating. It slows down once we’re on Jedha. But up to that point the editing feels very odd, jumpy and not really organic. However, it is commendable how they ended the film.
Characters moments are what I really missed in this film. And by that I don’t mean action scenes involving a character. I mean stuff that tells us more about the character’s past and how they became who they are. For me to make them work I need more. We get a nice 2 minute (or so) moment from Caspian that worked rather good. But for our main hero Jyn… there is nothing. It felt like there was more material with her and Saw Gerrera. It’s not there. So there is no emotional response when she meets Saw and confronts him about their past. Felicity Jones does a good job in that scene but it’s completely wasted because we have no foundation for her emotions. In the same scene she learns that her father is still alive. And again… yes we saw how the Empire took away her father and killed her mother. But that’s all. Jyn and Saw tell us that the times were difficult but we’re watching a film here. Show it! So again, this nice emotional scene, when Jyn sees her father’s hologram… it just didn’t work and triggered no emotional response from me. But it should! I should feel something for her. But all I got was a mechanic reaction like “oh look at that, she learned her father is alive!”. Maybe… and just maybe… better writing would have kept it a secret from the audience too. Don’t tell us in the first scene of the film what’s exactly happening to him. Let the audience find out along with Jyn. Maybe… then there would have been a stronger reaction from me. It’s stuff like this that is driving me nuts in this film. I’m no screenwriter at all but damn… it can’t be so hard, right? Maybe it is.
I did not expect to see Grand Moff Tarkin in this film. His stand-in is the British actor Guy Henry. He has similar body proportions like Peter Cushing, who played Tarkin in 1977. For Rogue One they created a CGI face of Peter Cushing. This looked amazing! I sat there and couldn’t believe how good that looked. I watched and read some reviews that pointed out that CGI Tarkin did not work for them at all. And it is really weird. While I wouldn’t say it’s flawlessly done, it definitely is very very good. And the same can be said about the rest of the VFX work in this film. There is not a single scene that looked off and everything CGI integrated very well. The (again too long) battle scene in the end had some fantastic moments as well. And the CGI work definitely helped the movie and franchise to expand the universe we know from Star Wars so far. We get to see a number of different planets and locations. A ton of alien creatures (that were fantastic practical effects most of the time). Visually this film is a total eye catcher. No doubt or complaints about that.
Fan service. It’s always an issue with big popular franchises. People complained about it when The Force Awakens came out. Surprise surprise… no one seems to complain now. And it’s amped to 11 in this film. I won’t spoil it but we meet two bad guys on the streets of Jedha City for a glimpse moment. That’s when it was too much for me. I have no problem if they bring back characters if they’re vital to the story. But some of the stuff they included was pure fan service and felt out of place. In the final space battle they even included unused footage from A New Hope. Really? I’m not saying it wouldn’t make sense. When I saw these images I was taken out of the movie within split seconds and was shaking my head. It felt cheap and totally unnecessary. It was the complete opposite end of what they did with Darth Vader.
Darth Vader was great in this movie! Mainly because he was not used to such a gratuitous amount like these fanservice moments. Vader had a great presence and it felt fantastic seeing this iconic villain in action again, without being a reference to a joke. He kicked some ass and I can say I enjoyed every second with him. Even though I had doubts when I first saw him on screen. They did right with the character. And that is because he, to a degree, was vital to the story of the film. That worked really well.
I can see this film becoming a love/hate thing for me. It’s full of flaws, forgettable characters and draggy action sequences. Its strength is the fact that we finally get so see a world that is not included into the main series of movies. The job the ‘expanded universe’ books had in the past, will now be taken over by films. I have no problem with that in all honesty. For the future I just wish they take more care of the characters they include in the films. Otherwise it really makes no sense casting strong actors like Whitaker, Mikkelsen or Felicity Jones. Actors like these are capable. Give them depth!