By Travis Trombley
Such a villain would see the Death Star not as a career achievement, but as a tool to crush the hope of the rebellion, cause them to turn on one another in desperation. It would be his (or her) goal to defeat not just physically, but mentally and spiritually those antagonistic to the Empire. In contrast, the rebels would have to discover and affirm their internal motivations to keep fighting against such odds, and to do so in collaboration with one another. Instead, Krennic and his ambitions provide a framework for plot progression, but do little in the way of thematic development.
And this pretty well defines Rogue One’s tendency to privilege plot over everything else. The first fifteen minutes hint at an exploration of the gritty, imperial climate in which the famous rebellion of the original series burgeoned. We see an imperial officer hunt down and coerce an old colleague into service, we see a rebel agent shoot an informant in order to escape arrest, we see our protagonist assert a cynical apathy over altruism, old school Han Solo style, and we watch an Imperial tank suffocate a city street, imposing the Empire’s strength on the citizens of Jeddah and the image of occupation into viewers’ minds.
But that’s about all it. A few hours of blaster fire, Michael Giacchino scores, and classic character cameos later, it becomes clear that Rogue One, scripted by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, is a film too concerned with doing something novel within the Star Wars universe that it forgot to do something compelling.
Without a doubt, Edwards and company made a wicked fun film, rife with war-film style action and genuine humor, all cemented by a solid, enjoyable cast. But despite it’s focus on rebellion, Rogue One is imperial standard: reluctant hero takes up the cause against a categorically (yet unexplained) force of evil.
The premise of Rogue One may way have stemmed from a conversation between two drinking buddies concerning the absurd weakness that allowed the Death Star to be destroyed in A New Hope. “Well, what if it was put there on purpose? Like an inside job,” one might have said, and thus this anthology tale was born.
The Empire - faced by Mendelsohn's Director Krennic, recruits weapons designer Galen Erso to build the Death Star. When his wife fights back, she dies, and their daughter Jyn goes into hiding with family friend and rebel extremist Saw Gerrera. Some years later, when the Rebel Alliance needs to find Saw, they use a grown but cynical Jyn to get in the door. This puts Jyn in a ship with Rebel spy Cassian, his hilarious droid companion K-2SO, an Imperial defector, and a couple Guardians of the Wills - the gun-toting brute Baze and the blind, show-stealing, warrior monk Chirrut. Together they hop from planet to planet in the search for Jyn’s father and - eventually - the plans to destroy the Death Star using a weakness he built in.
At each juncture, Edwards provides viewers with a grittier sense of action. A lack of flashy lightsabers makes room for more grounded gunplay, from the urban guerrilla tactics of Middle-East inspired Jedha City to the more sprawling WWII battlefield invasion style of the finale on tropical Scariff. Everything feels a bit more real. With a few slight exceptions, there’s no flashy “boss battle” or fancy parkour, just good ol’ gunfights, and that’s refreshing in a way. Edwards’ restraint here distinguishes the film from the other seven and promotes his more everyman focus.
And while, like Force Awakens, this film does well in regards to making Stormtroopers actually feel threatening, partly due to the general sense of consequence that goes with combat, it’s most noteworthy action-film achievement is the brief kung-fu set piece starring Donnie Yen’s Chirrut. It’s another welcome detour from the traditional lightsaber duel that gives us a different but grounded taste of melee combat in this universe.
And just as there’s no deconstruction of characters here, nor is there much analysis of the climate in which they operate. Stormtroopers bully people for papers and imperial starships hover over cities creating a sense of military domination, but never do we get an insight into the political ramifications of these actions; there’s no hint at the motivation behind the Empire other than perpetuating its own existence, no propaganda connecting the Empire to the defeat of the Separatists and the end of the Clone Wars. Saw Gerrera’s extremist faction gives us a framework for moral contrast even within the Alliance, but the conversation is abandoned to a few collateral casualties. Clearly Rogue One has some ideas, it just doesn’t know how to express them.
That and, I can’t stress this enough, Krennic is just a lame villain. Any semblance of a Hans Landa caliber menace he established in the opening scene is quickly lost to his pouty sycophantry. The white-clad bureaucrat never provides the film a sense of threat; his few acts of cold villainy feel predictable and consequenceless. He doesn’t really add depth to the film’s thematic development, nor is his groveling and posturing that fun to watch.
After watching Rogue One, I went home and played Battlefront. Naturally. And during a match in which I played as the Empire, my voiceover companion alerted me that “Director Krennic will be leading this mission,” indicating that someone had opted to play as Rogue One’s chief antagonist. I laughed out loud trying to figure out why anyone would choose a character who probably starts with half a health bar and whose special ability is letting the people around him know that he bullied the people who built the Death Star.
Undoubtedly the film’s crowning achievement is simply its service to the established narrative. It gives backstory and momentum to existing events and characters. Those leaving the theater won’t remember Rogue One’s sacrifice; instead, they’ll rave about how awesome it was to see Vader plow through rebel soldiers before Leia's ship breaks away with the Death Star plans, but they’ll appreciate all the more what it took to get her those plans.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, for fans and newcomers alike. I just wish there was more to chew on; repeating a word several times doth not a theme make. At least not a good one. Hopefully the other anthology stories (Han Solo and Boba Fett are on deck) take advantage of the opportunity to explore this world rather than just expand it.