22 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story review

As the first in what Disney/Lucasfilm hope will be a long line of spin-off films set in this universe, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story finds itself in something of an uneviable position. All eyes are on this movie to prove that these spin-offs will be worthy of the Star Wars name, and it has to do that under the extra scrutiny of being a prequel in a franchise with a less than stellar reputation when it comes prequels, to say the least. Far more than most other films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is tasked with justifying its own existence - and it does, if only by the skin of its teeth.

Set in the days leading up to the opening of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (curse this franchise and its irrationally long naming conventions) follows Jyn Erso, daughter of Death Star designer Galen Erso, as she and a group of other rebels attempt to steal the plans for the Death Star in order to give the Rebel Alliance a chance of destroying it.

Despite being rendered effectively pointless from a plot perspective by a line of text in the opening crawl of a film nearly 40 years old, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story still ends up feeling worthwhile thanks to the skills of director Gareth Edwards, who manages to nail the aesthetic of the Star Wars universe while still imbuing the movie with his own sense of style, resulting in the best looking - or at least, the most visually distinctive - Star Wars film to date. Edwards proved that he had an impressive grasp on how to best represent impossibly large things on screen with 2014's Godzilla, and that skill is used to great effect here - the sense of scale that he brings to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story helps make moons, planets, Star Destroyers and even the Death Star itself seem more impressive and awesome (in the traditional sense of the word) than ever before.

Unfortunately, that's not the only similarity between Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. To say that the characters of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story are underwritten would be something of an understatement - not a single one of them is given the chance to develop beyond their initial characterisation, resulting in a movie led entirely by characters who are two-dimensional at best. In some cases, this isn't too big an issue - reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO is the only character whose personality comes from the script rather than the person playing them, and blind Force-sensitive monk Chirrut Îmwe and ex-Imperial Pilot Bodhi Rook manage to make an impression thanks to the performances of Donnie Yen and Riz Ahmed respectively - but despite being positioned as our two main protagonists, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor are forced to share a personality between them, and not a particularly interesting one at that. They're generic stock heroes, blank slates, the very definition of "cookie-cutter characters" - hardly the interesting, charismatic characters that should have been leading this movie.

But these character issues are mere symptoms of the underlying problem with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - that problem being that as a film, it's broken at a pretty fundamental level. The opening act would quite easily be the most muddled, ineffective, poorly pieced together introduction to a movie this year if not for Suicide Squad, and the middle section wastes what little chance it had to develop these characters and show them forming the bond that the finale simply assumes they have. The fact that this finale - a truly spectacular battle sequence that really delivers on the "war" aspect of Star Wars for the first time - still works in spite of that is a testament to just how good it is, but that doesn't change the fact that it's seriously undermined by the rest of the movie failing to set it up correctly. I can't say whether these problems were introduced by the extensive reshoots the film underwent earlier on in the year or alleviated by them, but I'm getting pretty tired of leaving the cinema with my main thought being "I'd really love to see what the original version of that film looked like".

Because more than anything else, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feels like wasted potential. For the longest time I've yearned to see this rich, imaginative, distinctive universe be used for more than just Keeping Up With The Skywalkers, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story seems like it might be an important stepping stone towards that goal - but it's also a deeply troubled film, one that is only really worth seeing for the finale alone. Since Disney bought Star Wars, they've made two new entries into the franchise; one with great characters in a derivative story, and one with an interesting story filled with lifeless characters. Here's hoping that Rian Johnson's Episode VIII can deliver on both counts, rather than just the one.

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