This review contains no major spoilers for Rogue One.
An untold number of rebels died in the period between Star Wars Episodes III and IV. They laid the groundwork for Luke and Leia to defeat the Empire, and for better or worse, they wound up being overshadowed by the Skywalker legacy.
Rogue One is the story of those lost heroes, and it didn’t quite live up to our expectations.
As the first Star Wars spinoff movie, Rogue One takes a sharp left turn from the epic fantasy of the Skywalker saga, into the straightforward and grim territory of wartime drama. Focusing on the ragtag team of rebels who stole the Empire’s plans for the Death Star, it owes a lot to heist movies—except for its sense of humor, which is mostly restricted to the deadpan rebel droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) and the morbid comedy of Darth Vader throttling his underlings as a punchline.
Structurally, Rogue One illustrates why humor is an essential aspect of the heist genre. In order to set up the extensive cast (six or seven main team members, plus villains and support), the first half of the film is packed with exposition. In a typical heist movie, these explanations take the form of fast-paced banter, but Rogue One‘s darker tone necessitates dozens of conversations where people just tell each other what’s happening and what their role is meant to be.
This isn’t to say that Rogue One should have been more lighthearted, but Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s script just isn’t as lively and natural as The Force Awakens. By directing its attention to the dark side of the Rebel Alliance, Rogue One should have compared favorably to the fierce, gritty pessimism of the later Hunger Games movies. Instead, thanks to an overabundance of expository dialogue and some unexpectedly clunky acting, it rarely achieves the immersive beauty of the better Star Wars movies.
Much has been made of Gareth Edwards’ innovative directorial choices, including the down-and-dirty, handheld camera work that makes Rogue One visually distinct from the old-fashioned cinematography of classic Star Wars. His technical vision shines through in the battle scenes, but his work with actors leaves something to be desired. Compared to The Force Awakens, where J.J. Abrams wrung passion and sincerity out of every scene, Rogue One feels a little patchy.
Ben Mendelsohn is deliciously fun as the bureaucratic villain Orson Krennic, Diego Luna is sensitive yet intense as the rebel spy Cassian Andor, and Mads Mikkelsen‘s gaunt face hides a bottomless well of weird charisma. Yet the story is full of awkward moments where actors just don’t deliver, like the early scene where Cassian interrogates an informant who behaves like a guest star on a second-rate cop show. It’s surprising to see this from such a stellar cast, but many of the main characters owe more to costume design and visual worldbuilding than direction and dialogue. (Plus, there’s the baffling decision to include a CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing as Moff Tarkin, in a disquieting example of the Uncanny Valley.)
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) follows in the grand, mythical tradition of Star Wars protagonists: abandoned by her parents on an aesthetically forbidding planet, and later corralled into joining the Rebel Alliance. Unlike Luke or Rey, she’s kind of a reluctant hero. At first she’s apathetic toward the war effort, stating at one point that she’s “never had the luxury of political opinions.” But as the daughter of the Empire scientist who helped create the Death Star (Mads Mikkelsen), she wants to redeem her family legacy—an arc that’s mirrored by other members of the Rogue One team, who are more pessimistic and damaged than energetic heroes like Poe Dameron or Luke Skywalker.
Jyn and her father Galen represent a new angle in the Star Wars universe: that of everyday citizens who either avoid the war, or actively collaborate with the Empire. As a former collaborator who fled the Empire and was dragged back into the fold, Galen Erso is sympathetic yet morally flawed, in a dirtier and more shameful way than the operatic evil of Darth Vader. On the opposing side, Diego Luna gives an engaging portrayal of a dedicated soldier who believes in the Rebel cause, but is compelled to do terrible things in the name of his mission.
Meanwhile, Jyn’s arc is less satisfyingly written. Her switch from political apathy to inspirational rebel leadership feels a little too sudden, and is mostly propelled by the actions of her father. In a film that already feels oppressively male-dominated, this is disappointing. Despite being marketed as the first Star Wars movie with a female lead (and, to its credit, featuring a more racially diverse cast than previous installments), Rogue One seems to take place in a universe where 98 percent of the women have vanished. With the exception of brief appearances from tertiary characters like Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma, everyone in the film is a man—including background extras. Apparently, someone decided that gritty war films are not the place for ladies.
As with the rest of the franchise, Rogue One‘s production design is stunning. The tropical base on Scarif is like nothing we’ve seen before, and its sprawling battle scene feels tense and immediate. David Crossman’s costume design fits into the Star Wars universe while distinguishing Rogue One‘s place in the beaten-down Dark Ages of the war, with the lead characters dressed in the tough, unwashed garb of guerrilla fighters. Jyn and Cassian look effortlessly badass in their scrubby jackets and layers of grimy shirts, while Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the aging extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) contribute sci-fi style with their dented body armor and bulky weapons. As ever, the franchise’s visual worldbuilding is second to none—although Michael Giacchino’s score just isn’t as memorable as the iconic work of John Williams.
Rogue One was a bold move for Star Wars, injecting more misery and desperation into a story that was already all about war. And oddly enough, its main problem was that it didn’t go far enough. Rogue One‘s examination of wartime morality and ideology is frustratingly basic, and while we see more of the fallout from the Rebels’ guerrilla tactics, the gritty tone is no more effective than the more wholesome mood of the other films. The Force Awakens was an uplifting tale about friendship, but it still introduced one of the franchise’s most disturbing details: the fact that many stormtroopers are child soldiers, brainwashed from birth to be cannon fodder for the Empire.
Pitched as the story of a pivotal moment before A New Hope, Rogue One would have benefited from a smaller cast with better character development, and a more complex look at the politics of the Rebel Alliance.