I Think Rogue One is an Average Star Wars Movie. I’m Okay With That.

WARNING: Lots of spoilers about Rogue One, including the ending. You’ve been warned!

As I did with The Force Awakens, I waited a bit to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story so I could see it with family. As with Episode VII, this meant that I saw a fair amount of feedback on the film, from the lavish praise heaped upon the film by the media (and many friends) and a few dissenters among my circle who hated it. Either way, I was able to step into the theater without having any of the film spoiled for me, except for the bits in the trailers (which, we now know, included a lot of footage not in the film).

After watching the film, and processing it, I came to these conclusions:

  1. Rogue One is a pretty average Star Wars film.
  2. I’m completely okay with this.

I should start by clarifying what I mean by the first point. To date, Rogue One is the eighth Star Wars film to hit the big screen, and the first not part of the numbered series. (We know that at least three more Star Wars films are on the near horizon: Episodes VIII and IX, along with the Han Solo standalone film.) Some of them have been outstanding, and some of them have been terrible. Prior to Rogue One, my own personal ranking of films would have gone, from top to bottom, something like this:

  1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
  3. Episode IV: A New Hope
  4. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
  5. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  6. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
  7. Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Depending on your opinion and your level of fervor, you might right now have any number of responses, like, “How can your rank Jedi over New Hope?” or “Why is Force Awakens only in the middle?” I hope I’ll be forgiven for really liking Return of the Jedi despite the Ewoks, and for being a bit ambivalent about how The Force Awakens fits into the rankings, since we’ve yet to see how the threads put in motion in that film will be played out.

Rogue One, being a self-contained story, is a little easier to fit. I would put it at #4 or maybe #5 (if Episodes VIII and IX) really validate the plot of VII). In other words, in the pantheon of Star Wars movies, I think that Rogue One is about “average:” not as good as the first movies, but definitely better than the prequels.

To my second point: I’m perfectly okay with it being in the middle. Honestly, the first three movies (IV, V, VI) were such a tour de force that it might be wishful thinking to believe that any future movies would recreate that magic. The genius of the first films is that they gave us a glimpse into a new wondrous galaxy, and trying to recreate that feeling is perhaps nigh impossible. (The closest thing I’ve seen to that is the video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but that masterpiece benefited from a setting thousands of years before the films.)

By any reasonable standard, Lucas largely botched the attempt to recapture that feeling with the prequels. Disney, to its credit, has righted the ship that Lucas himself nearly sank by bringing Star Wars back to, if not greatness, at least competence. I don’t think that VII and Rogue One are perfect, but they’re solid, and that’s more than one might have hoped for handing the reins to someone not named Lucas. Rogue One bears the additional burden of being a side story, and an additional burden after that of being an honest-to-goodness interquel, trying to draw a (canon) thread between III and IV. Despite those hurdles, it manages to succeed at its task in a lot of good ways.

What I Liked About Rogue One

The vibe. One of the big praises of this film came from the fact that the director was allowed to make the movie he wanted to make, with no Disney interference. He wanted a war movie, and he made a war movie. It was grittier than many other Star Wars films, and there was a lot more lost. The most obvious loss was the Rogue One team: all of them died. You could quibble about the way some of them died — yeah, a few felt a bit anticlimactic, but war can be that way — but I didn’t doubt that killing them off was not only appropriate, but maybe necessary. As others have pointed out, to have them live would have made them iconic heroes in the Rebellion, and that would be a serious continuity issue. Knowing that this was a suicide mission, I think, elevates the stakes.

The primary villain. Orson Krennic is an unusual — and, at first glance, underwhelming — choice for a Star Wars antagonist. He possesses no Force powers, has only basic fighting skills, isn’t particularly charismatic, and is only a marginally effective leader. Other than the fact that he oversees the Death Star, he might easily be mistaken as a mid-level bureaucrat, and once Grand Moff Tarkin elbows him out that’s more or less what he turns into. And yet that somehow seems fitting, in a film centered around a group of forgotten misfits. He represents an important facet of the Empire that we don’t often see fleshed out on film, and the way the film juxtaposes him with the savvy of Tarkin or the raw power of Vader is well done, in my view. The mythology of Star Wars is a little fuller for Orson Krennic.

The cameos. One of the most polarizing parts of the film for fans were the inclusion of characters from the larger Star Wars series. The biggest chatter was over the digitally reconstructed Grand Moff Tarkin, but I read other people who disliked the inclusion of Bail Organa, Saw Gerrera (from the Clone Wars series), R2D2 and C-3PO, and, at the end, Princess Leia. Other than one small beef with the Leia cameo that I’ll get to in a moment, I had no problem with any of these. I thought Tarkin, for example, was a useful and maybe even crucial inclusion given the Grand Moff’s visibility in the Death Star of Episode IV, and the CGI job was about as impressive as I’ve ever seen. I got goosebumps seeing Jimmy Smits reprise his role from Episode III one more time here, not long before he perished on Alderaan at the hands of the Death Star. And I loved the way Vader was handled, from the touch of putting his fortress on Mustafar to that scene of Vader rampaging through the disabled Rebel flagship … in what might be one of the greatest single scenes maybe in any Star Wars movie, period.

What I Didn’t Like About Rogue One

A convoluted plot. The best Star Wars movies advance a straightforward plot that sets up with a minimum of fuss … while the worst ones get overwrought with confusing intrigues. From start to finish, I thought Rogue One‘s plot tried to do too much. The film’s first act was a dizzying succession of planets with character introductions so breathless I barely cared or fully understood who they were. The second and third acts oscillated between some easily understandable plot points and some others that felt thrown together just to be different. The Rebellion’s flaky attitude toward the Scarif assault — no, we’re not going … okay, now we are! — felt weird and a little disorienting.

Character development. Although I thought it perfectly fair, even appropriate, that no one in the primary cast survived, I can’t say that I felt much for them dying … and that’s telling. Because the convoluted plot took so long to ramp up, I didn’t feel like I had to connect much with the characters. I knew only a few bits about most of them, and after the film even had a hard time remembering most of their names. Creating connections in an ensemble movie is hard without making it 3+ hours, and I didn’t think Rogue One lived up to the task. It’s a testament to the problem here that the only time I got sad is when the droid (whose name I can’t recall) died.

The last scene. Okay, a small nit, but when you’re talking about the last thing you remember, it matters. Had the director made handing the plans to a certain white-robed figure the very last thing, and then cut to credits, it would have been perfect. Panning to the front of a not-quite-convincing recreation of Leia saying “hope” felt like one step too far.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, I came away feeling like Rogue One was good but not great. I don’t think it will be a film that I’ll watch a lot, except perhaps to one day marathon between viewings of III and IV. But that doesn’t make it a failure. In fact, I think it speaks well that the film manages to be a worthy installment in a franchise that, by now, has sky-high expectations. Rogue One could be better, but, as George Lucas has proven, it could also be a lot worse. I’ll take this kind of film over Jar Jar or Geonosis any day.

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