Beginning with the omission of its opening crawl, if Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One aspires for one thing it’s to not be the same. Which, with a cavalcade of media properties ranging from film to video games to an R2-D2 thermos, not to mention the incalculable $$$ at stake and soul-crushing “creative committee” involved, one can ask without a hint of irony: how can you afford to be different? Well, this becomes a bit of a gray area, as Rogue One is a peculiar product of dueling ambitions. It exists within the spectrum of a massive industry complex defined by arranged sequels when its intentions are, surprisingly, much more noble. Instead, it’s defined by a sense of finality. And to suggest anything conclusive within the Star Wars Universe™ is most assuredly an act of not being the same.
Recounting Rogue One’s exposition is, as far as I’m concerned, a futile effort. In large part because the things that I appreciate about it are ephemeral, less to do with finer details (of which I argue there are none) and more to do with the eccentricities that distinguish Edwards’ work from the preceding films. But as it were: the film centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of an Empire scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) who’s responsible for designing the Death Star. Her father’s notoriety expectedly yields the interest in Rebel forces, whereupon Jyn is shuttled about from planet to planet with Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid pilot K2S-O, first in search of an old Rebel ally in the form of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) and then to uncover the Death Star’s architectural design; all the while assembling a cadre of Rebel forces to combat Empire soldiers led by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).
The above is an attempt to succinctly address only the key narrative touchstones of Rogue One, but let it be known that the film is a couple shades away from David Lynch’s Dune as far as narrative incoherence is concerned. Part of it comes from the debt it attempts to pay by keeping the picture ingrained within the context of the films that preceded it. It goes beyond lip service, instead aiming to become the connective ligament that unites the prequel trilogy with the originals. It moves at a rapid clip, particularly in its opening passages where the audience is transported from planet to planet with little more than a bit of text to distinguish each milieu. If anything, it reminded me of the opening sequence of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship (I’m aware that the intersection between Star Wars fans and Jane Austen-adaptation aficionados are of a limited supply; this is for them), but without a punch line.
So while coherence proves to be an immediate issue with Rogue One, it’s exacerbated by the thinness of its characters. Jyn is no Rey and the picture, despite its attempts to be an ensemble work, needed a strong character to anchor its numerous narrative detours and asides. It simply proves to be unwieldy and telegraphed, a product of the Marvel Universe Syndrome, whereby characters are afforded their moments of recognition before retreating to the periphery of the frame to once again wait their turn. It’s the droid pilot K2S-O who ironically ends up resembling the closest thing to a human being, who’s afforded the films most persistent witticisms and genuine insights. The rest, especially Diego Luna’s forgettable duel-lead performance, all seem to be in service of a larger character that doesn’t exist.
But like with Gareth Edwards’ previous film, Godzilla, I was most immediately struck by the distinct images that compose Rogue One. Edwards has a particular knack for conveying the physical dichotomy between his characters and the worlds they inhabit. The confrontation between man and monster, as realized by the Death Star and Darth Vader, is afforded with some potent imagery that persistently looks down upon Rebel forces, as if ants combating the mighty. Much of its most compelling imagery comes from the final battle sequence that defines the latter portion of the film: whether it be Krennic looking down at his base in disarray or the sinking feeling of him peering to the skies seeing the Death Star, the imagery is above all effective. Compounded by the finality of its conclusion, Edwards submits a distinct, though ultimately uneven work that never quite manages to become the spectacle or ensemble piece it hopes to be. It’s certainly different, which is something I would’ve thought worth commending. But this time, I’m not too sure.