Cinema: Rogue One is half bad, half great

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Over the summer, things were not looking good for Rogue One. With just months left until release, Disney ordered potentially massive reshoots for the film. That’s never a good sign; it implies that producers don’t like what they’ve seen.

Now that the movie’s out, I’d be curious to see which parts of the film were reshot. After a tepid first half that at times can get downright drowsy, the film heats up in its second act. The expansive climactic battle is perhaps the best we’ve ever seen in the Star Wars universe. Gareth Edwards’ direction gives the film a serious, grounded tone we’ve never seen before in the series. It finally puts the Wars in Star Wars. The events in this film lead directly to where Episode IV: A New Hope begins, and give insight and context into how ruthless the Empire was. Ultimately, it cements itself as an entry of the anthology we didn’t know we needed.

It’s not a total success, though. The film’s soggy first half, while pretty, weakly introduces a cast of characters who embark on a fairly uninteresting adventure. The cast in Rogue One is, frankly, boring. And unfortunately, we spend the first half of the movie seeing them work with bland material. Felicity Jones, who delivered an excellent performance in last year’s The Theory of Everything, comes across as dry and one-note as Jyn Erso, the film’s rebel leader protagonist. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better; they’re either given too little interesting material to work with, or they get bogged down in the crowded script. The main flaw with Rogue One is that it’s trying to Band of Brothers in space, when it should have focused on simply being Star Wars with a grittier tone.

Opening without the iconic yellow text crawl, we are treated to visuals of a vast farmland planet unlike anything the series has seen before. It’s immediately clear Greig Fraser’s cinematography is one of the highlights of the film (he’s also worked on Snow White and the Huntsman and Zero Dark Thirty). Jyn Erso is a little girl who lives in hiding with her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a defector from the Empire. Jyn grows up to be a Rebel just like her parents, embarking on a quest to prevent the construction of the Death Star, the iconic ship with the ability to destroy entire planets.

The band of ragtag heroes gradually comes together, a highlight of which is K2SO, an Imperial-turned-Rebel droid. Voiced by Alan Tudyk, he is programmed to calculate odds of survival with a biting sarcasm reminiscent of (or directly copying) C3PO. While not all his humor lands, he’s a highlight compared to most others. Donnie Yen plays the only other interesting character, a blind warrior with a staff-wielding fighting style new to the franchise. Yen is able to inject humor into his performance, but as the group’s intended spiritual center, he fails. This is less Yen’s fault than it is the fault of screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. The only element of spirituality they give him is to repeat “I am one with the Force” or something similar so often, it becomes outright annoying. When up against writing as lazy as this, there’s not much an actor can do.

The story may be dry in the first half, but the cinematography is gorgeous throughout. Other than the aforementioned farmland planet, we also explore a planet covered in large stalagmites. It rains perpetually during the group’s stay there, making for an excellent set piece. The film’s climax takes place on a beach planet, where Fraser beautifully contrasts the natural tropical beauty is with a metal Empire fortress located right on the coast.

Audiences can rest easy once the group reaches the beach planet. From then on, it’s an all-out intergalactic war movie that, finally, lives up to the hype surrounding it. Edwards’ action style jells seamlessly with the Star Wars universe. Blaster guns actually seem threating now, shooting actual destructive lasers rather than harmless lights that conveniently miss every protagonist, like in the originals. AT&T Walkers return from The Empire Strikes Back and are used as vehicles of tremendous destruction. Rogue One isn’t a reimagination of the series, but it does modernize many of the elements we took for granted.

The film only gets better as it goes along. The strongest minutes are its very final. Cameos from beloved classic characters are scattered throughout, though none come close to Darth Vader. James Earl Jones, now in his 85, returned to voice the role once more. He doesn’t get too much screen time – a few minutes collectively – but the film shows Vader at the absolute height of his power and fury. Without spoiling anything, the few minutes of screen time he’s in justify the expense of a ticket. We’ve never seen Vader like this before.

Will Rogue One sit amongst fan favorites? It’s possible. The action is strong enough to please long time Star Wars fans begging to see more of the universe in a different light. The characters in this film are completely forgettable, a jarring step backwards from the all main series entries. But for those who prefer spectacle, Rogue One may rank among the greats.

Rewind: Though Lucasfilms would have you believe Rogue One is the first Star Wars spin off, it isn’t. That title goes to Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure. Based on a story from George Lucas himself, the film was made for TV in the United States in 1984, but actually booked theatrical release in Europe. If it’s watchable today may be in question, but back around its release it was award an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects. Personally, I think Ewoks are the Jar-Jar Binks of the original trilogy, which is to say, they were annoying and nearly ruined the film they were in. But, I guess the idea of a movie about nothing but talking teddy bears is pretty marketable.