THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY"
This review contains a very minor spoiler regarding a familiar character's appearance.
In theory, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a good idea. This is a stand-alone prequel to the 1977 original, designed to be its own thing while still fitting into the universe George Lucas created. Going this route was brave. The upside is that it could introduce a new feel into Star Wars. The downside is that it could end up working against the biggest strengths of the franchise. And that's essentially what ends up happening. Rogue One feels more like a movie with Star Wars stuff in it than an actual Star Wars movie.
Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a feisty young woman whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) reluctantly helped the Empire develop a new weapon called the Death Star. She hasn't seen him in years, and believes him to be dead. Then a Rebel officer, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), arrives with news that he may still be alive. The Rebels want to find Galen to get his plans, which are said to reveal a way to destroy it. They recruit her to help locate him and stop this fearsome new weapon. Joining their team are blind samurai Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and the requisite wisecracking robot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk).
Aside from Jyn, these characters are not very interesting. Think back to the new heroes introduced in The Force Awakens. Rey and Finn are immediately engaging. We're eager to follow them. In Rogue One, the characters are either underdeveloped (Chirrut), or downright boring (Cassian). Caring about the mission is harder when the people we're tracking are devoid of the magnetism we've come to expect from this series. The lack of a compelling villain also hurts. There's no looming figure to fear. The closest we get is Grand Moff Tarkin, but since actor Peter Cushing is deceased, the movie relies on woefully unconvincing CGI to recreate him. Because it looks fake, every scene with him has the effect of pulling you right out of the story.
Star Wars movies have traditionally contained a sense of wonder and fun. They are thrilling adventures, with bits of romance and comedy thrown in for flavor. Rogue One is missing that. The first hour is unexpectedly gloomy. Turning Star Wars into a war movie could work, but the plot relies too much on well-worn sci-fi stereotypes (e.g. the assembly of a ragtag team where everyone has a different specialty). True camaraderie among the team members is missing, too. Consequently, it never works up the sense of excitement that you'd expect. The last half-hour abruptly switches tones, attempting to deliver a more familiar Star Wars experience. Things definitely pick up a bit, just not enough to compensate for the dull slog leading up to the climax. The screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy never finds a good balance. Full commitment to either a Saving Private Ryan-in-space vibe or a more conventional Star Wars tone would have been preferable to the inconsistencies of Rogue One.
On the rare occasions when the movie makes a blatant attempt to feel like its predecessors, it misses the boat. A number of characters from the original Star Wars pop up for distracting cameos that come off like the shameless fan service they are.
So what does work? For starters, Jones is really good as Jyn, to the point that you wish there was more to the young fighter than there ultimately is. The effects, that lame CGI Tarkin aside, are also excellent. During the climactic X-Wing battle, Rogue One presents a POV from the tops of the ships, right behind the robots who help navigate them. Especially when seen in 3D, the effect offers a rare thrill. And, of course, any self-respecting Star Wars fan would find some interest in the idea of Rebels trying to prevent the use of the Death Star. Even if not capitalized upon to its fullest extent, this is a difficult-to-resist concept for anyone to whom the series has meant anything.
Directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), Rogue One could have really put the “war” in Star Wars. Edwards and his writers don't seem to fully understand what made most of the previous installments so successful, though. Showing X-Wing fighters, Stormtroopers, and AT-ATs isn't enough. There has to be a fully-conceived journey for the heroes to make. Such a journey is lacking here. The story is too thin, too varied in tone, and too intent on hitting the brakes for pointless references to the original Star Wars trilogy.
In the end, Rogue One, despite a few admitted strengths, plays like mediocre Star Wars fan fiction.
( 1/2 out of four)
Rogue One is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action. The running time is 2 hours and 14 minutes.
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