Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was probably the most anticipated film of late 2016, a fact well reflected by its massive box office success. And there’s a lot to like in the movie. For one thing, it looks absolutely fantastic. The cinematography is great, and the special effects are absolutely incredible. Director Gareth Edwards manages to imbue the film visually with an authentic sense of grit and realism that enhances the level of visual engagement the audience feels with the film. The action set pieces are also fantastic, particularly the massive land and space battle that comprises almost the entire third act, setting a new high mark for combat immersion in sci-fi cinema. And for what it’s worth, I really appreciate that the cast is mostly comprised of actors with ethnic backgrounds frequently underrepresented by mainstream cinema.
So…. why only 2 and a half stars?
Well it’s actually pretty simple to nail down, pretty much because it’s the exact same glaring problem in every movie Gareth Edwards has directed so far: the spectacle and action are great, but all that is undercut by the weak characters. Not the acting—the acting is fine – but the personalities and motivations of the characters are flimsy and one-dimensional. Aside from Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, an instantly quotable and hilarious converted Imperial droid, and Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe, a blind quasi-Jedi who beats up Stormtroopers with martial arts and a stick, most of the characters in this movie are boring. And unfortunately, the worst victims of this are the two protagonists, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor. The two aren’t bad actors, and they’re alright in this movie, but the characters they’ve been given to play are just so bland it’s impossible to feel any real empathy for them. One would think that with a 133 minute run-time, the film would be able to give the characters a real sense of personhood and three-dimensionality, but most of the time it feels like the film is over-explaining the already complex story in lieu of developing the characters and making the film reach the level of the original trilogy.
The film also feels oddly toothless and risk-averse to me. This can once again be blamed on the rather bland characters. Lip service is paid to the idea that the primary characters in Rogue One are grittier fighters than the more sanitized heroes of the previous Star Wars movies, but outside one odd and rather out-of-place interrogation scene involving Saw Gerrera (played by Forest Whitaker) and one or two sort of morally questionable actions performed by Cassian Andor (Luna) they don’t seem all that at-odds ethically from the other Rebel soldiers, Han Solo and Chewbacca, or other, more traditionally heroic, sci-fi action protagonists.
Rogue One is not a bad film, but the lack of emotional investment prevents me from calling it legitimately good. It’s a decent film,but i don’t see why people like it as much as they do. If it seems like I’m being too hard on this film, it’s only because with all the obvious talent and effort that went into this film, I feel it should have been so much better. While I’m glad for the sake of Star Wars that it isn’t a bad film, it’s not one I can get all that excited about. If you want to see a better version of this same type of movie from earlier this year, go see The Magnificent Seven. It might not be on the same level of spectacle as Rogue One, but at least it has characters worthy of emotional investment.