As always, there are spoilers.
I have a lot of problems with Rogue One.
The awkward fan service like the C-3PO/R2 D2 cameo, or Jimmy Smits’ entrance.
The well-performed but underdeveloped cast of characters.
The whole reanimated Tarkin business.
Whatever the hell Forest Whitaker was doing.
Darth Vader making a pun.
It’s a movie where you can sense the disparate elements that are trying to come together to create a satisfying whole. Where you understand that this character is motivated by A to do B, but you don’t always feel it.
Jyn Erso exemplifies this. You are told everything needed to understand what her purpose is in Rogue One. She is abandoned by her father, then by her surrogate parent, and only agrees to help the rebellion for self-preservation. After years of solitude and multiple instances of abandonment, Jyn is only motivated to survive. Jyn’s arc is her going from hopeless to hopeful. From apathetic to passionate about the rebellion. But you don’t experience it.
Before the film’s climax, Jyn makes a passionate attempt to convince the Rebel Alliance to help steal the Death Star plans. And it’s a scene that doesn’t land because we don’t see how Jyn got to this emotional investment in the rebellion.
Logically, you understand why. She discovers her father is still alive, and that he has built a secret way to destroy the Death Star at the cost of his own freedom and, eventually, life. There is also a scene where another character points out Jyn’s insulting apathy towards the impending war between the rebels and the empire.
The reunion and almost-immediate loss of her father, combined with being called out on her selfishness, are the elements needed to push Jyn into being a believer in the rebellion. But we don’t see or experience Jyn’s transition to being a believer. It feels like there is a missing scene that should bridge the gap between where she is after losing her father to the passionate speech she gives to the Alliance.
It’s a problem that plagues this whole movie. There’s such excitement towards getting to the “big moments”, and showing off the admittedly spectacular production design, that Rogue One never soars to the heights that it is reaching for, because it doesn’t take its time to earn those moments.
And yet, in the end, the movie works.
Because for all of those flaws, the finale surprises us by showing us a battle sequence that conveys danger and stakes in a way that no Star Wars movie has done since, yes I’m going there, The Empire Strikes Back. If it had given us an opening half that helped us get to know its characters more, the finale would have hit a lot harder.
Because aside from Jyn Erso, I couldn’t tell you another character’s name, or give you a basic personality description of them, if my life depended on it. I remember their functions in the plot. I remember that Donnie Yen was just as wonderful and underused as I expected. But I didn’t leave missing these characters.
I understand that Rogue One is meant to be a different kind of movie compared to the other Star Wars films. It’s a war story, which means that there is no requirement to make its characters completely likable or always do the right thing. Diego Luna’s character kills an informant to escape Stormtroopers in one scene. Forest Whitaker’s character is a rebel, but a fanatic who tortures another character simply because he is paranoid enough to think everyone is lying to him.*
And there are plenty of good elements in Rogue One, but they only come together for the climactic battle and theft of the Death Star plans. The two scenes with Darth Vader actually exemplify the two halves of this movie pretty well. His first scene doesn’t serve much purpose other than announcing that Vader is in the movie and reminding us that Ben Mendelsohn’s character is on thin ice with the Empire higher-ups.
But the second scene serves as a reminder of why Vader is a terrifying villain, and also shows just how close the rebellion came to not having a chance in hell of taking down the Death Star.
As many problems as I had with this movie, I would still recommend seeing it. Because despite its characters not being particularly memorable to me, the actors that perform them do their damnedest to make them work. And a big budget Hollywood production with a cast this diverse is important to support, no matter what problems I may have with it.
There will be people who go to see this movie that are used to Star Wars movies being a fairly white affair. The Force Awakens has already started to move the franchise away from this with the casting of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, but Rogue One‘s talented cast takes the next step by increasing the amount of non-white actors present in the main lineup of characters.
Rogue One is far from perfect, but the idea of an audience member seeing themselves in one of these new characters, performed by actors who keep their respective accents, is a big deal. And again, the finale is so well-done that it almost makes up for the less-than-satisfactory first half.
* I’m told that Whitaker’s character is a pre-existing character from the Clone Wars TV show, which would explain the movie’s strange amount of focus on this character that doesn’t end up having much screen time, but adds to the amount of awkward fan service that Rogue One tries to cram into its story.