When Disney announced its acquisition to the rights of the Star Wars franchise in 2012, two things immediately sprang to mind.
Firstly, from 2015 onward, the world was most likely going to get one of these films every year until time collapsed in on itself. Star Wars would likely outlive pretty much every darn person pottering about on this rock. Sooner or later, audiences would be overwhelmed with a never ending tirade of flicks set in a galaxy far far away.
Secondly, in spite of the fact that humanity would be subjected to abundant quantities of these swashbuckling science-fantasy flicks for the remainder of time, it also meant there would likely be numerous spinoffs telling stories not only expanding this ever growing universe, but would also revisit previously established stories and explore them from unique perspectives.
On the surface, Rogue One is such a story. Here we have a feature directly preceding the events of 1977’s A New Hope, however instead of creating a new fable branching away from the parent saga, director Gareth Edwards has decided instead to take a footnote from the opening crawl of Episode IV and stretch it into a 133 minute long feature flick.
Although some may accuse the premise of Rogue One as being essentially pointless – namely for its choice to make a film about a mission many know the outcome of – there’s much to admire about such an idea. Because what we essentially have here is a story which takes a grandiose (albeit fictional) event and magnifies the lens onto a group of extras who’ve only ever existed in the backdrop of the saga until now.
Much like an historical epic or biographical tale, despite knowing the outcome of the Death Star’s fate, Edwards is choosing to take the events of A New Hope and shift the focus onto a new group of characters existing on the outskirts of that narrative.
To add to this, not only do we have a Star Wars film told from the perspective of those not belonging to the Skywalker bloodline, but one which is tremendously visually different from the previous seven installments.
Whereas Episodes I to VII have all been showy, colourful, space opera fantasy flicks, here is something far more gritty, pragmatic, grim and dark in tone. Iconically, it’s still clearly Star Wars (Stormtroopers, Vader, TIE fighters, X-Wings, AT-ATs, Star Destroyers, Grand Moff Tarkin and the Death Star all make frequent appearances) yet everything’s less flashy and glossy in appearance. The corridors are blemished, the droids rusty, the ships corroded and the weapons cobbled together. This isn’t a faultless fantasy shining in all its glory, it’s a world well lived in. Much like the planets and ships in the Alien franchise, here is a fictional universe that’s damp, dismal and brutally authentic.
There’s a richness in the premise and visuals of Rogue One which make for one of the most fascinating installments of this series to date. Unfortunately, when it comes to the characters at the centre of its plot, the script runs into a couple of problems.
At their core, the characters at the centre of this film are promising and down right interesting. There’s Jyn Erso, a former criminal aiding the Rebel Alliance in an attempt to steal plans to the Death Star weapon which her father helped construct; Captain Cassian Andor, a rebel pilot and intelligence officer; K-2SO, a comically sincere droid originally created for use within the Empire; Bodhi Rook, a former Imperial cargo pilot who defects to the Rebel Alliance; Chirrut Îmwe, a blind warrior who possesses great faith in the Force; and Baze Malbus, mercenary & best friend of Chirrut Îmwe.
All these characters sound great. A diverse group of rebels with distinct skills and unique backgrounds. Bringing such a crowd of appealing misfits together is surely enough required to tell an interesting and exciting story where electrical personas bounce off of one another. Seeing such a varied gang come together is bound to spark intriguing chemistry and engaging character developments.
Yet none of that happens. Instead Rogue One spends most of its screen time neglecting these very characters. It’s not that any of the performers here are bad (quite the opposite), nor is it that any of these characters have dull or uneventful backgrounds. It’s just that the script fails to explore their pasts or traits in a decent enough manner to make them engaging or notable. The only one of the bunch who so much as leaves anything resembling a memorable impression is K-2SO, whose honesty and dryness is solidly executed from start to finish.
So instead of having a film chronicling an engagingly memorable group responsible for the victory achieved in the days preceding a New Hope, we get a set of characters whose purpose for existing seems to be to give Rogue One a gang of rebels to follow while more “important” stuff happens around them. This isn’t their story, they are there because the script needs someone.
The film makes little effort to try and elevate them from the status of pawns, instead opting to jump to distracting cameos whenever anyone shows any sign of character development.
If Disney wished to successfully execute the idea of telling a Star Wars story beyond the original frame of Episode IV’s narrative, then surely focusing on an interesting bunch of characters is one way to make such a premise shine. Star Wars has been tied to the Skywalker family for almost 40 years now. If you’re going to widen, enrich and justify the expansion of this universe, then surely emphasising how intriguing and fascinating the other residents of this intergalactic landscape are is surely the way to go about doing this. If this isn’t done, then why bother?
On its surface, Rogue One appears as though it’s telling a story about the characters existing on the periphery of A New Hope. When you look a little closer at the protagonists positioned at the centre of this story, however, it seems as though their only purpose is to give the filmmakers an excuse to salivate over the original 1977 flick.
Nonetheless, although the film has issues focusing on the protagonists at the forefront of this feature, Rogue One can be seen as a promising experiment that may well benefit the Star Wars saga in the long run. Because regardless of the script’s problems, we still have a film committed to giving us something dissimilar to what has come before. It’s a gritty, down-in-the-trenches, tonally murkier take on a series known for its more fantastical style. Instead of recreating what has been seen before, here we get Star Wars as a war movie. It’s taking something familiar and smashing it head on into a different genre. It’s an experiment which may help to keep future installments remain fresher than they might be if they stick to the usual formula.
Aesthetically, Rogue One is a fascinating and unique take on one of the most recognisable franchises in pop culture history. Plus the idea at it’s core is fantastic and exceptionally promising for the franchise’s future. Yet at the end of all this, what you essentially have is a gang of characters getting overlooked and dragged through an ancillary Star Wars movie so Edwards and co can reanimate iconic characters from the original trilogy.