And yet, “Star Wars” is the defining story of my youth and a huge part of why, despite largely growing up without access to pop culture, I ended up working as a critic anyway. I don’t think I’d be doing my job if I encouraged you to lower your standards for the kind of movie franchises that are going to dominate pop culture for years to come. The missed opportunities in “Rogue One” made me feel cracked down the middle and left me sorely concerned that Kathleen Kennedy, who’s charged with stewarding the “Star Wars” universe, doesn’t actually know what’s great about it.
The biggest problems with “Rogue One” are less about the specific appeal of the “Star Wars” universe and more about basic flaws in the filmmaking.
In the early going, the movie jumps from scene to scene so quickly that characters never get to establish anything close to conversational rapport, nor, by extension, credible relationships. The original “Star Wars” trilogy wasn’t precisely languid, but in the scenes where characters drank in bars, played chess during long, light-speed flights, jogged through swamps or flirted on mining colonies, we could see their relationships develop and their personalities emerge from the fronts of smuggler, farmboy and princess. Here, there’s something oddly off about the actors’ line readings and the pacing of their delivery in relation to each other; often, while watching “Rogue One,” I felt as though I was watching the first time the actors took a stab at a scene, rather than the result of the final decisions they ought to have reached in collaboration with each other and director Gareth Edwards.
It’s not just the shortness of the early scenes that seems like a mistake: In one moment that’s meant to both to be a sop to “Star Wars” fans and to set up a critical later plot reveal, the shot is framed so that the face of the character who is speaking is cut off from the nose up.
The characters in “Rogue One” are defined by traits that are more frequently stated than demonstrated on screen. For — what is she, actually? “Rogue One” never tells us precisely what she does before she’s rescued from Imperial prison — Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), it’s abandonment. For Rebel Alliance operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), it’s guilt over vaguely-alluded-to past actions in service of a cause he believed to be just. For Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), former Guardians of the Whills (a nice, but undercooked, shout-out for serious “Star Wars” nerds in the audience), it’s devotion. For defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed, wasted for the second time this year), it’s … well, what is it, exactly? For Imperial engineer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), it’s belief in a supposed Imperial meritocracy. They exist less as people, much less as avenues to explore any big ideas in depth or with sophistication, than as characters in a video game; we need them to complete tasks, not to be people.
The task itself is worthy: Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, Bodhi and the irritable droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, one of the best parts of the movie) team up to steal the schematics for the Death Star that Krennic has been building, and which has become the tool in a power play between a series of Imperial officials.* But the way “Rogue One” executes that mission is awfully foolish.
I love a good heist movie, and I love a great action movie even more, so it’s hugely frustrating to see “Rogue One” make choices about how that heist might proceed that have nothing to do with logic and everything to do with throwing random obstacles in our heroes’ paths. Why spend multiple minutes, for example, watching characters manipulate a piece of machinery, only to learn that they have to go in and do a process by hand? Why would Rebel forces be surprised that their signals were jammed? Why is a supposedly critical piece of technology located on a random beach? Why would people who are trying to safeguard a critical bit of data not simply pass it through a door that has jammed open wide enough for a person to reach their hands through it?
I know these sound like quibbles. But choices such as these conspire to make “Rogue One” feel not immersive and propulsive but oddly contrived to make the action go on as long as possible. “A New Hope” could make the simple act of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) flipping a switch tense and fascinating without throwing a whole lot of disposable plot garbage into his path. The frenetic nature of “Rogue One” feels like an expression of a lack of trust in audiences to sit with characters as they emerge, and maybe in the “Star Wars” universe itself to command attention.
The problems with “Rogue One” wouldn’t feel so damning if there wasn’t a good, thoughtful, intelligent movie in there, somewhere, and if it hadn’t cast a terrific group of actors only to squander their talents. “Rogue One” makes genuinely daring choices in its final moments, even if they’re utterly undermined by the movie’s failure to make the characters involved in them feel like real people. It’s a testament to both the power and the difficulty of “Star Wars” that I keep hoping the next installment will capture what made the initial movies so compelling, even though the last truly great big-screen “Star Wars” story first debuted in theaters a long time ago in a world that now feels far, far away.
*More on this on Monday, but it’s a huge problem for the “Star Wars” universe moving forward that the Empire has always been better developed than the core leadership of the Rebel Alliance.