The Problems with Rogue One
It may be an unpopular opinion, but it needs to be said: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not a very good movie. The initial burst of joy one feels as the film starts and all the callbacks and nods to previous Star Wars films come rolling in slowly turns to disappointment, as the realization sinks in that the whole movie is just two hours and thirteen minutes of hollow action scenes and fan service. If that sounds like some cantankerous old man shouting at the new movies to get off his lawn, while stroking VHS copies of the original Star Wars trilogy, it’s not. The Force Awakens came out just a year before Rogue One, and it manages to hold its own just fine when put up against the holy trinity. So why then does Rogue One feel like it doesn’t even hold its own against The Phantom Menace? Well, for starters…
The Fan Service Menace
Any movie belonging to a franchise with a rabid fanbase is expected to throw in references to other entries in their respective cannon – the fans practically demand it at this point – and Star Wars is no exception. When done correctly, this can be a fun little treat for eagle-eyed viewers, but when done incorrectly – as is the case of Rogue One – it can be distracting, sticking out from the rest of the movie like a sore thumb.
The Force Awakens is an example of fan service done the right way. There is a scene set aboard the Millennium Falcon where Finn bumps into the holochess board last seen in A New Hope, and accidentally turns it on. The same stop-motion creatures from the original (again brought to life with practical effects by the great Phil Tippett) stomp around the board for a few seconds before disappearing. It’s brief, nobody calls attention to it, and it makes sense that Han Solo, being the space equivalent of that friend of yours that refuses to clean out the back of his car despite having an entire backseat covered in McDonald’s wrappers, would have the same junk sitting around his ship for close to forty years.
Rogue One, on the other hand, tries to shoehorn cameos and Easter Eggs in where they don’t belong. Take the scene where Doctor Evazan and Ponda Baba (the ugly guy and the walrus-faced dude from the Mos Eisley Cantina in A New Hope) bump into Jyn and Cassian on Jeddah: it would work if it were a casual walk by, but instead, Doctor Evazan stops and tells Jyn she to “watch herself,” the same thing he will tell Luke Skywalker a week later on Tatooine. It makes no sense in the context of the movie for Evazan to say the same thing he says in A New Hope; “you just watch yourself” doesn’t quite work as a catchphrase the way “I have a bad feeling about this” or “may the Force be with you” does. This was clearly a case of “Remember this guy? From the other movie? He’s saying that thing you like!” It’s a moment that is completely out of place and serves no purpose, which is the same deal with the film’s other silly cameo, with C-3PO and R2D2 shown when the rebel fleet on Yavin IV gets redirected to Scarif. Amidst the hustle and bustle, the camera cuts to C-3PO looking right at the audience as if to say “It’s me guys, that wacky droid you love, I’m back!” before turning to R2 and muttering “Scarif, they’re going to Scarif? Why does nobody ever tell me anything Artoo?” It’s supposed to be funny because C-3PO never seems to know what’s going on in A New Hope, but instead, the line just comes off as the kind of self-referential humor that belongs more in Deadpool than Star Wars. The sad thing is, Gareth Edwards is perfectly capable of executing a cool, low-key Easter Egg because he does exactly that near the end of Rogue One when Gold Leader from the Battle of Yavin shows up as part of the rebel fleet (via unused footage that George Lucas shot for A New Hope). It’s a cool little detail that doesn’t take you out of the action, unlike the ham-fisted examples above.
It Looks Like Star Wars And Sounds Like Star Wars, But It Sure Doesn’t Feel Like Star Wars
When The Force Awakens came out, some fans were quick to say it ripped off A New Hope but is that such a bad thing? The Force Awakens does borrow elements from A New Hope, but so does Return of the Jedi, and no one ever seems to complain about that. In fact, George Lucas himself, in From Star Wars To Jedi: The Making Of A Saga, admits that Jabba’s palace is just his attempt to remake the Mos Eisley Cantina with better special effects. The truth is, Star Wars movies reuse the same themes and ideas all the time. That isn’t meant to imply that they conform to that whole “ring theory” schtick from a couple of years ago, but there’s no denying that there are certain beats that most Star Wars films follow. Call them the three L’s: lightsabers, loss of limbs, and Lighthearted-ness. Rogue One just doesn’t hit those beats; it does have a lightsaber, and one character is missing a leg, but they forgot the most important part: to make it lighthearted.
Rogue One lacks any sort of whimsy or swashbuckling, two things the previous seven movies had in spades. The movie is so dour that even the constant barrage of cheesy one-liners from the film’s only tolerable new character – reprogrammed Imperial Droid K2-SO – can’t lighten the mood. Star Wars was originally made for kids, but unfortunately, those kids grew up and demanded that their favorite franchise grows up with them. Say what you will about the prequels (and much has been said), but at least they felt like Star Wars. Kids loved The Phantom Menace – it was adults that hated it, and it was those same adults that insisted on a darker Star Wars to fit their adult sensibilities.
At this point, several Rogue One fans are probably running to the comments section to say “but The Empire Strikes Back was dark and that’s everyone’s favorite Star Wars movie!” Yes, Empire was dark, but it also featured a little green puppet hitting a robot with a stick while trying to steal his flashlight. Despite one dire situation after another, Empire was still an adventure movie at heart. The sound of the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive failing may have signaled that Han Solo’s luck had run out, but it also sounded like the space equivalent of the wah-wah-wah-waaaaaah of a sad trumpet.
It’s common knowledge that Gareth Edwards was trying for a grittier take on Star Wars, a movie that focuses more on the horrors of war rather than a high-flying space opera, but that just doesn’t work for these movies. The minute you put soldiers in white plastic armor in the middle of Saving Private Ryan, it becomes a farce and loses all credibility as a gritty war drama. Remember the criticism leveled at Zack Snyder for his grimdark take on the DC universe? Gareth Edwards is the Zack Snyder of Star Wars.
Then there is also the matter of Rogue One’s score, which can best be described as John Williams-adjacent. It’s unfortunate that Michael Giacchino only had a month to score the film after the original composer dropped out, but not as unfortunate as the music he came up with. When John Williams left the Jaws, Superman, and Harry Potter franchises, the composers that replaced him still used parts of his original score to bolster their own original compositions. Not so with Rogue One. Instead, Giacchino made the baffling decision to forgo the main Star Wars theme and the “Imperial March” in favor of pieces that sound like they are trying to copy them without getting sued. In my opinion, Giacchino’s score feels like the equivalent of one of those bootleg Star Wars figures you find at the dollar store, which is fitting, because Rogue One is essentially Galaxy Empire: The Movie. It looks and sounds kind of like Star Wars but just leaves you wanting the real thing.
A New Hope Is A Worse Movie Thanks To Rogue One
It’s one thing to view Rogue One after having seen seven other Star Wars movies, but what if you’re watching the series for the first time? We know that Disney and Gareth Edwards intend this spin-off to be viewed before A New Hope, not just because of where it fits on the timeline, but because they went through great pains to have the last minutes of Rogue One line up perfectly with the beginning of Episode IV. That’s a shame because when taken together chronologically, Rogue One actually weakens A New Hope as a film. Near the end of A New Hope, when General Dodonna briefs everyone on the Death Star plans, he says simply that the Empire doesn’t consider a small, one-man fighter to be a threat, or else they would have guarded the thermal exhaust port better. That’s it. It’s a simple but powerful metaphor for the Empire as a whole – they don’t take the rebellion seriously, and it is their hubris that is their downfall. It also shows that one person can make a difference, no matter how bad the odds are stacked against them. Hokey and old-fashioned, yes, but still an important message and one Rogue One completely ruins. When it’s revealed that Galen Erso designed the Death Star with a fatal design flaw on purpose, it robs Luke’s victory against the Empire of any sort of David and Goliath type of symbolism it once had. It turns out Goliath was allergic to rocks this whole time – who knew? And speaking of the legendary all-out, last-ditch, “we only get one shot at this, so let’s throw everything we’ve got at them!” assault on the Death Star, well, let’s just say it’s a lot less exciting when the movie you watched right before this one did essentially the same thing. Imagine if a week before the allies stormed the beach at Normandy, they stormed a different beach in Europe with the same intensity. Suddenly D-Day’s not such a big deal.
The same goes for Grand Moff Tarkin’s itchy trigger finger. It might not be explicitly stated in A New Hope that the Death Star has never been fired at a planet before Alderaan, but it’s definitely implied. Imagine once again that you’re watching these films for the first time, and thanks to Rogue One, seeing a whole planet blow up goes from “Holy crap, the Empire is so evil!” to “Meh, this is kinda like when they fired at Jeddah and Scarif, just with a little more oomph.”
Even Rogue One’s best scene, in which Darth Vader goes all-out Jason Voorhees on a bunch of Rebels, is bittersweet when you realize that he displays none of that ferocity later when he faces Obi-Wan Kenobi, and both combatants fight as though they just got out of a swimming pool full of Nyquil.
Rogue One Doesn’t Really Have Any Reason To Exist
Perhaps the greatest complaint one could raise against Rogue One is that it doesn’t serve any sort of purpose. There’s no good reason to flesh out A New Hope’s opening crawl; all you need to know is already there. Rebels operating from a secret base stole the Death Star plans and gave them to Leia. BOOM. So what’s next – a spinoff detailing how the Rebels dug out all of the tunnels on Hoth? Of course, an argument could be made that we didn’t need the other prequels either, but putting aside the actual execution of Episodes I-III, the concept of Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace, as well as the destruction of the Jedi, is infinitely more interesting than how a group of generic rebels stole some blueprints.
That isn’t to say that there’s no room to expand upon the characters and situations introduced in the movies, but many of the ancillary stories are better off told through other media, such as books, video games, and TV – all three places, coincidentally, that the tale of the stolen Death Star plans was originally fleshed out before Disney 86`d (Order 66`d?) the Expanded Universe. Rogue One is a more streamlined and coherent version of the story than the one that was told in Legends (Disney’s new banner for content no longer seen fit to rub shoulders with the mainstream Star Wars timeline), but is it a better one? Is Jyn Erso a more memorable character than Kyle Katarn? Not really. Does Rogue One bring anything better to the table than what Dark Forces or Rebel Dawn have to offer? Not unless you’re really into wisecracking robots, and even then it’s been done better elsewhere. No matter how you slice it, Rogue One just doesn’t have a good reason to exist.
Hopefully the Han Solo standalone movie will at least have better music.