With The Rise of Skywalker just around the corner, let’s take a look back at 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to voice some of my insufferable, pedantic opinions.
I had really wanted to like Rogue One. Gareth Edwards is a terrific director. His 2010 creature feature, Monsters, is remarkable. That Edwards completed all of the visual effects work himself is a testament to the huge heart that film has. The same can be said of his 2014 Godzilla. His version of Toho’s icon was respectful of the character’s Japanese origins, while articulating what Godzilla’s symbolism could mean in a post-9/11 world.
When Edwards was announced as Rogue One’s director, I was excited. When he spoke in featurettes about doing a film where the Jedi weren’t present, I was eager to see how his addition to the Star Wars saga would play out. Initial photos from the set showing performers in imperial stormtrooper armour only added to the excitement.
Of course, Rogue One’s release came around, and I left the cinema feeling disappointed. There were things I’d liked about the film (the production design and look of the film were superb), but, as a whole, the film just wasn’t what I’d hoped for. Of course, just because the film didn’t live up for me doesn’t mean it was a bad film, just one that didn’t work for me. Several of my close friends and colleagues all enjoyed it, and I can certainly see why. But there was something in Rogue One that I feel was lacking; and that was a credible threat.
From the opening crawl of the original Star Wars (1977), we understand that the rebels have won their “first” victory against the Galactic Empire prior to that film’s events – the events of Rogue One. This then, one would assume, means that the Empire is at the height of its power. Why then does it never feel or look like this?
Throughout Rogue One, the Empire rarely feel like a genuine threat. In all of the film’s numerous fire fights, imperial soldiers are gunned down left, right, and centre – almost comically. Not one of our rebel heroes gets a scratch until the film’s end; when they’re all hurriedly killed in about twenty minutes. At a certain point, one begins to question how the Empire ever held any grip on the galaxy after the events of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith if they couldn’t handle this band of rebels at the supposed height of their power.
Perhaps if the protagonists had been picked off one by one as the story developed, it would feel as though what they faced had the power to stop them – raising the stakes. However, if Rogue One’s battles were anything to go by, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and his gun could’ve probably wiped out the entire imperial navy if it weren’t for the pesky story consistency dictating that he should die at the film’s end.
Obviously, this isn’t to suggest that the heroes of Rogue One shouldn’t have won; of course, they should have. The issue is that when you have an antagonist so easily dealt with, why root for the heroes? What is there that actually stands in their way?
Before you finish typing a comment to remind me of the Empire’s shortcomings in the original trilogy, at least the threat in those films was credible because the Empire had significant moments of victory. The battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) displayed the Empire as a force to be reckoned with, as did the opening of Star Wars when Vader’s stormtroopers dominated the fire fight aboard Princess Leia’s starship. These scenes reinforced the idea that the Empire was to be feared.
You may now be hurriedly typing to remind me of Darth Vader’s imposing appearance at Rogue One’s end. Yes, Vader’s scene indeed sees a squad of rebel soldiers come up against a force they’re powerless against. It’s a great scene, if a tad on the fan-service side, and showed how frightening Vader could be. But because the scene is at the film’s end, after scene upon scene of our rebel heroes scoring easy wins against the Empire, its effect is lessened and has little bearing upon our reading of the story.
I wasn’t particularly attached to any of Rogue One’s characters, and perhaps that was because it rarely felt like their victories were hard-fought. In a story, your villains need to be stronger than your heroes for their eventual victory to mean something. For a film that tells the story about that first, significant rebel victory, I wasn’t thinking “Phew! That was tense!”, but rather, “Why didn’t they do this before?”
If you’ve reached this point in my article, you’re likely thinking “God, what a nerd, why doesn’t he just shut up and go outside?” It’s a fair comment, but I do think what I’ve shared here are reasonable observations. Rogue One had the chance to show a side of the Star Wars saga that has seldom been depicted – those moments where the Jedi aren’t coming to help and oblivion is at the door. Instead, Rogue One has a Jedi stand-in in the form of Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior who believes in the Force. We’re told that Imwe isn’t a Jedi, but he may as well be because the strength of his belief carries him through fight after fight. He also never stops talking about the Force when on screen, giving the impression that Rogue One isn’t quite the Jedi-less movie it was said to be.
Of course, that issue comes down to my expectations of the film versus what the film actually delivered. Indeed, I don’t pretend that Chirrut’s characterisation counts as a flaw, but rather, I think it made for a less unique experience when Rogue One had the potential to deliver otherwise.
Rogue One did have moments of brilliance throughout, such as the inclusion of Gold Leader (Angus MacInnes) and Red Leader (Drewe Henley) in the battle of Scarif – achieved via stellar compositing of archival footage shot for the original Star Wars. Indeed, the overall look of the film is wonderful. The landscapes of Scarif are convincingly rendered through digital imagery and location photography. It is a shame, then, that the film’s core conflict is unconvincing. When your story’s villains never have any victories, there’s no triumph or sacrifice in those of the heroes. How can we root for heroes who don’t face serious adversity? Where are the stakes?
Pretty as Rogue One may have been to look at, its lack of conflict made for a dull film that fell short of its potential.