Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Short On Story

Another year, another Star Wars movie. Like Mind Control contributor MC Frontalot wrote the other day, it still feels a little exciting. How long before the feeling turns to dread? If they keep churning out lousy movies, all too soon.

Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards before Tony Gilroy took over and directed the re-shoots (70 percent, give or take, of the movie, or so it’s been said), feels like a very carefully and cautiously designed product. It’s jam-packed with Star Wars nostalgia, it’s heavy on the action, it has a multi-national cast, and its premise—a perfectly solid one—stems from the opening crawl of the original Star Wars: who stole the Death Star plans and how did they do it?

Problem is, I’ve seen the movie and I can’t answer either question. If I tried, it’d go something like this: “A bunch of people I can’t tell you a thing about, and I guess by going places and shooting a lot of storm troopers?”

I’ll give Rogue One this: It has more of a coherent story than The Force Awakens. But that’s an awfully low bar to leap, and they barely manage it. In fact “story” may be too strong a word. I know they want to get the Death Star plans. And they do. So there’s that. How they go about it is about as vague and uninvolving as possible.

Scene where the robot fails to say something funny.

They must have cut at least fifteen minutes from the the front of the movie. The introduction of lead character Jyn (Felicity Jones) could not be more of a muddle. She starts as a little girl in a dull prologue who hides from the Empire in a cave while her mother is killed and her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is taken away to build the Death Star. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) rescues her. Cut to some time later, presumably aboard a spacecraft of some kind, and Jyn is now an adult. Cut to some other scene, and all of a sudden we’re back to Jyn, only she’s been captured, I think? By bad people? And then other bad people bust her out? Sort of?

Only no, it’s the rebels who grab her. And suddenly she’s being told she’s a crucial part of the rebellion because she knows Gerrera. Also, her dad built the Death Star. Without any other scenes showing who this woman is, we’re left with a blank slate. She’s surly, is the main thing.

Jyn and Cassian (Diego Luna) head off to find Gerrara and the Imperial pilot who defected, only Gerrera dies before he can do anything except reunite with Jyn. Whitaker really plays the hell out of his role (though I’m not sure why they have him channeling Frank Booth from Blue Velvet with his oxygen tank; has he been cutting off ears on the sly?) It’s too bad his character serves no purpose. Everyone wants to see him—Galen sends the pilot, Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), to find him, and he’s the man the rebels need to reunite with to stop the Empire—but once everyone arrives, he’s dead. So why is he in the movie? Nothing is learned from him. Our heroes gain nothing by finding him.

Father figure No. 1

Actually they gain one thing. They collect Bodhi. Now just prior to their arrival, Gerrara sics a horrifying, goopy, tentacled brain-beast on Bodhi to find out if he’s lying about having defected, and tells him the side effect is that he’ll lose his mind. Does he lose his mind? He’s a bit out of it next we see him, but merely by Cassian telling him he’s “the pilot,” he snaps back to himself. So the brain beast has zero effect on Bodhi and the story. In fact we never even see Gerrara react to his test. Is Bodhi lying? We in the audience know he’s a good guy, so I guess why should anyone in the movie care?

Every character is given short shrift in Rogue One. No one is fleshed out or real. There’s no way to feel emotionally connected to any of them. They go through their dramatic motions and then—

You have seen the movie, right? SPOILERS to follow.

Oh, there’s a Death Star. There’s always a Death Star.

–And then they all die. Which is great. They should all die. What would be better is if we felt their deaths instead of only observing them. We never get to spend any time with these people or come to understand them. Jyn plays the standard reluctant hero role. She doesn’t care about the rebellion. That is until, suddenly, she does. Her change of heart isn’t felt. It happens, is all. And the reason it happens when it happens is because it’s at this moment the rest of the rebels, led by prequel lady Mon Mothma, decide they don’t care about the rebellion any more. Why have they abruptly given up hope, just when they’ve learned a secret kill-switch has been built into the Death Star? I don’t know, but I hope someone makes a prequel explaining it to me.

After Gerrara dies in a massive, Death Star related explosion, our heroes are off to find Jyn’s dad, Galen. This sequence plays out identically to the one with Gerrara. They arrive, Galen briefly reunites with Jyn, then he dies. Nothing is learned, and nothing changes. Our heroes are literally in the exact same place as they were an hour ago.

Rogue One is supposedly a heist film, but in a heist film there has to be a plan to follow. That’s what creates drama, that’s how we know what to care about. If we know the plan, we can be thrilled when things don’t go right. We can be scared. We can be involved. If there’s no plan, if it’s just characters running around making it up as they go, who cares?

War!

It all comes down to a switch that has to be thrown. A really big switch. We’re told about it mid-battle. What does it do? I don’t remember. There’s a shield that has to be busted, only no, they send a well-aimed star destroyer into that. Well anyway, it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that our heroes show up on the right planet, start shooting, walk into a giant secret-plans-containing-silo-thing, and grab the Death Star file. I mean obviously there are a lot of storm troopers they have to blow up on the way, but that’s not really a plan, is it?

There’s an awfully long battle sequence surrounding the acquisition of the plans, which is what everyone seems to like about the movie, and while it’s not bad, it’s kind of boring, too. They cut in some repurposed outtakes from the original Star Wars of rebel pilots zipping around, which I’m sure is thrilling for some, but I’m not a big enough Star Wars nerd to care. A rebel fleet shows up to ensure there’s lots of stuff flying around, but the characters are all anonymous.

Speaking of Star Wars nerdiness, while it’s a fine idea to make a movie about stealing the Death Star plans, it’s a terrible idea to ret-con the Death Star’s fabled exhaust port Achilles’ heel. Maybe everyone’s forgotten, but Star Wars is one of the goofiest movies ever made. It’s downright dopey—in the best way possible! It’s hilarious. And one of the wonderfully goofy things about it is how this moon-sized planet-killer has an exhaust port some dopey kid with an imaginary friend can drop a bomb into and destroy.

The renegade Death Star designer.

Now they’ve ruined that, too. They want us to believe that Galen agreed to build the Death Star only so he could booby-trap it and thus ensure its destruction. The exhaust port was all his idea, we learn.

You can almost hear the Star Wars faithful proudly crying, “Aha! You see? The exhaust port’s not so goofy now, is it?”

No. It’s not. Now it’s boring. Just like Rogue One.

Rogue One is chock full of Star Wars stuff. Great care went into the production design. All well and good. It looks cool. But what’s missing is any kind of Star Wars vibe. It doesn’t feel anything like a Star Wars movie. It’s plodding and grim. There’s nothing fun about it. The only real attempt at humor is in a robot character who isn’t funny.

I like the idea of a serious war flick in the Star Wars universe, but what makes war flicks compelling is their characters. I don’t need Hitler to show up. I need people I can care about, so when they die, it matters.

Darth Vader is all over Rogue One. He even gets to whup ass on a hallway’s worth of rebels. And yet…something’s wrong. It’s like his aura of evil is missing. He comes off as a guy wearing a funny mask who makes subtle puns. And speaking of his hallway ass-whupping, the asses he whups are more anonymous rebels. If you’re going to have Vader in your movie, shouldn’t he be facing off against the lead characters? Just having him randomly kill some dudes after our heroes have all died is pretty lame.

He was scarier before I knew he was a whiny little kid.

Worse still—much, much worse—is the CGI Tarkin. I can’t believe anyone signed off on this. It couldn’t look less human or be more distracting.

Oh, wait. Yes it could. You could do the same thing to Leia—and end your movie on her creepy, freakish, rubber face grinning at you.

What’s wrong with only showing the back of her head with her telltale hair? Why in the world would you want to show her face?

In the end, I find myself wondering, why tell this story? The answer the movie gives is: “To fill in the pieces!” (Yes, it shouts the answer.) The answer should be: “Because the people who stole the plans are just as fascinating as Luke and Han and Leia and Yoda and Chewie and etc. Here, let me show you.”

What they show instead are poorly drawn people with unclear goals and no emotional drives beyond sticking it to the bad guys. Oh well. Maybe next year.

8 responses on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Short On Story

  1. If you’re going to have a character named Bodhi and not have a POINT BREAK-era Patrick Swayze CGI’d into the role, then why even bother?

  2. Here is my snarky response. It may come off a little mean, but you done riled me up.
    So they went and made a Star Wars sequel and you didn’t like it. I am amazed. I understand you have trouble enjoying things due to the lack of love in your heart, Supreme Being, but you are getting sloppy. There are a bunch of plot points you missed. That does surprise me, though not that you didn’t like the movie, of course.
    You don’t know who Jyn is and what her motivations are? And why she’s a prisoner in the beginning? Maybe because the Empire considers her a criminal, as is mentioned over and over again, along with her crimes. Where is she going when she’s rescued? I don’t know, another prison colony? Who cares? Suddenly you like everything spelled out for you in a movie? That’s new.
    It is very clearly spelled out why Jyn is sent to go see Saw Gerrera, if you brought your ears with you to the theater. He has the message from her father about the weakness he’s put in the Death Star, how it can be destroyed. You say they gain nothing from finding him? Without this information, the movie would stop dead. It’s crucial.
    The hologram message is then destroyed in the confusion of Jeddha City’s destruction-by-Death-Star, so now Jyn herself has the information, so she and the crew must escape and deliver it to the rebels, or all will be lost. Also she picks up the pilot who’s defected from the Empire, completing the requisite ragtag band of misfits. One of them is a sort of blind monk Jedi(ish) guy and his badass giant gun-wielding friend, who are fucking awesome characters, I don’t care what you say. I know what I need to know about their backstory. You want more? Check the fan fiction.
    The bit here with the fighter Bodhi perhaps losing his mind but then not is, I conceded, badly done. It feels very much like a leftover from a different draft that should have been completely discarded if it wasn’t going to be developed. Kind of lame.
    Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker, acting for ten men, is played ambiguously at first. He is a rebel, but has he gone too far in his use of violence? Has he now drifted to the Dark Side? He has become half robot, a bit like Darth Vader, and the gas mask drives this point home–rather well, I think. We don’t know and Jyn doesn’t know. I find this ambiguity refreshing in this series. It’s a far cry from the black and white morality of A New Hope. The rebels can’t necessarily be relied upon to be the good guys.
    You say no character is fleshed out or real. I know you like everything spelled out for you so you know how to feel about a character. Oh, wait, you don’t, ever. I feel this is a strong point in the movie. I knew enough about every character through their actions to have an emotional connection with them, or most of the characters anyway. I also didn’t walk into the movie already having decided I hated it. Maybe that helped. I totally felt their deaths at the end, and I loved that they all died. I gave everything actual weight. But you like happy endings. Oh, wait, you don’t. But right, this is a Star Wars sequel, it must be terrible.
    Jyn is the reluctant hero until suddenly she isn’t, for no reason? You should face the screen when you watch movies. She just had a moment with Saw Gerrera and found out he didn’t abandon her, or at least he didn’t for no reason. And then she was able to have a moment with her dying father and found out why he had to leave her and that he never left the rebellion in his heart, and that he’s remembered her every day of his life, and that he trusts her to carry on his work. And if she doesn’t, the universe will be enslaved forever. Those seem like, I don’t know, reasons. And strong ones.
    Also in this sequence, Cassian Andor finds he cannot carry out his secret mission to assassinate Galen Erso, Jyn’s father, because he believes Jyn. More moral ambiguities here where characters who are not wholly good or evil have to figure out what’s right. It’s strong stuff for this franchise. They have come here to rescue/assassinate Galen Erso, but they fail, and they must regroup and find another way. Also they steal a ship from the Empire, which will be crucial in getting them past the shield at the next planet. So that’s what they were doing there, if you weren’t paying attention.
    You say this is supposed to be a heist film, and are upset it doesn’t follow those rules. Well, somebody may have told you that, but clearly this is a war movie. They have a mission, to retrieve the Death Star plans from the Empire’s archive, and they don’t know how they’re going to do it. They figure it out, at great cost. I’m fine with that. It’s a very exciting sequence. Part of that involves throwing a big switch, yes. They explain why at some point, it’s to get a message to the rebels that they have to destroy the shield. Maybe not the strongest goal, fine. Mostly the action involves drawing the Empire’s forces out of the main building to allow Jyn and Cassian to get to the archive and the Death Star plans.
    So they explained why the Death Star in A New Hope can be so easily destroyed. And that somehow ruins A New Hope for you? It’s all consistent with what happens in Hope, it’s just added information. I think that’s bound to happen in a prequel. You’ll live.
    Personally, I enjoyed Darth Vader in this movie. He seemed very much the Vader from Hope, which is where we are. I thought him killing a bunch of dudes was very cool. I knew who they were, they were rebels. And he killded them real good.
    And of course, the CGI Tarkin and Leia were fucking terrible. Just cast new people. We accepted a new Dumbledore, we can accept a new Tarkin. A terrible idea, terrible execution, and a seriously terrible precedent to set. But there we are. Disney.
    So there. Rest in Peace, Carrie Fisher, you were amazing. Goddamn it.

    • I just saw it and you know what? I had myself a rill good time. Perhaps, having seen the other Star Wars movies, it was just that this one wasn’t fucking insulting. Or perhaps it was that every character wasn’t some surprise badass who unbeknownst to them was the most powerful person in the universe except for that guy, I mean her, no him. Or maybe it was because it was far and away the most interestingly shot Star Wars film, minus of course, the ghastly CGI people. Terrible call there.

      Sure. There were some story problems. I would put those story problems on a par with the story problems in Hell & High Water, which I just watched, and which is about two brothers who retain, for a few a days, the rights to land worth millions of dollars but who instead of signing a deal, or taking out a loan, or borrowing the fucking money decide to rob banks for $43 fucking thousand dollars. I mean, really. I’ll lend you the cash at 200% interest and you’ll still come out ahead.

      The acting was decent. The robot was funny. Some of the effects were pleasing to behold, particularly the destruction of Jedda. Donnie Yen is the shit. And basically it was Where Eagles Dare or The Dirty Dozen or any number of other war movies but in space. I really don’t know what kind of character development SB expected; compared to everything but Empire, it was astoundingly above par. People changed and grew, albeit in predictable but reasonable ways. The main characters had enough backstory, or at least as much as characters do in other films we love. They didn’t feel like comic book stooges. They fit the film they were in and then they died.

      The battle scenes were a bit overdone, I guess, but not, say, Iron Man overdone, or overdone compared to practically every other tentpole film of the past decade. It was a war film. People fought and died and most of them you didn’t get to know real well. But you knew enough of them. If you didn’t care about the leads, well, I can’t really fault you. They weren’t the most sympathetic creations or the most well-rounded parts I’ve seen, but then this wasn’t Cuckoo’s Nest or Dog Day Afternoon. It wasn’t made to be about character. It was made to be about many Bothans dying, whatever a Bothan is. Ask Paul. He’ll know.

      And I went in expecting to hate it. Which I didn’t.

      So I think this negative review is unwarranted. I also think it is preposterous to hold Star Wars films to anything but the most basic standards since 90% of them are too terrible to force ear mites to watch. As a film, it was fine. Not brilliant. Not insulting. As a Star Wars film? It was a fucking miracle. Complaining about Rogue One is like complaining about Snakes on a Plane. What did you hope you were going to get, if not this?

      Tano. I got your back. Don’t let that mean SB rile you up. Rogue One was the only Star Wars film I can recall enjoying since I was prepubescent.

  3. First of all, I think we can all agree that it was a totally legitimate idea to leave my ears at home and watch the movie facing away from the screen. That’s just a common sense way to give the movie every opportunity to impress.

    Beyond that, perhaps I glossed over some bits, but no matter the logical thread one can pluck from this mess, it’s still a boring movie with poorly drawn characters.

    Finally, if they make a CGI old Leia for part IX, all humans should rise up in protest and crush the evil mouse empire into stardust.

  4. Last night we got out of the cinema after watching Rogue One and during our long walk home we uttered some thoughts of dismay that were literally identical to yours! If I had had a need to find reassurance that this film wasn’t as poor as I thought I had cared to read some of those positively dopey reviews of those who make sure we watch the next installment against our better judgement. But I rather wanted to know whether it WAS as bad as I thought and something told me you guys would be positively on the same side of the “argument”. Thanks for a wonderful review which put its finger into every single plot hole and shortcoming of this Star Wars 3.5 thing. So at least I have one positive emotion out of it: I was right with my rejection of it whilst almost everyone in the cinema appeared to enjoy it. Oh and one thing to add: I consider myself a fairly devoted Star Wars fan and still I felt about the reminiscing bits just as awkward as you did. Digital Tarkin was the worst card they could bet on and to repeat this horrible deed with Princess Leia in unforgivable. They could have kept it at seeing her from her back and left it there …Bad luck for the producers and director/team of the movie that Carrie Fisher just died and we all saw so many of her recent “real persona” photos online. This made the rubber face Leia even more absurd and insulting.

    But what definitely ruined Rogue One for me most of all was the total lack of character development and background as well as the lack of a cunning plan which I could enjoy watching unfold, getting disrupted, being changed etc. But this mess of going places and pulling out big guns and blind kung fu masters did not work for me in the slightest. Disney appears to lack completely the idea of storytelling. They fill it in with costumes, props, cheesy music and wrong pathos instead.

    • Glad to be here to reassure you you’re not insane. It really wasn’t very good at all, was it? I mean it had its bits and pieces here and there to gape at, but story and character suffered terribly.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.