Almost exactly a year ago, I was the guy who excitedly pulled up the live stream of The Force Awakens red carpet premiere, grinning like a stupid little kid as Anthony Daniels and Oscar Isaac answered Star Wars trivia. I was the guy who had bought his Thursday-night opening-weekend ticket for the movie months in advance. I was the guy who strongly considered trekking to Hollywood Blvd to get as close as I legally could to the Chinese Theater, just to glimpse the majesty of the event in person (I ultimately decided against it, instead opting for the live stream). I was the guy doing the mental math adding 2 hours 15 minutes to the slated start-time for the premiere, so I would know just when to start refreshing twitter to get Patton Oswalt’s first reaction to the movie. I was that guy.
Clearly, I was swept up in the euphoria of ‘more Star Wars’, something that I had known was coming for four years but didn’t quite feel real until that night just over a year ago. As I said in my review for the film, there was a ton at stake with The Force Awakens, including and especially audiences’ enormous expectations for ‘more Star Wars’. What wasn’t clear to me a year ago (but is clear to me now) is that the Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the more accurate representation of what ‘more Star Wars’ means in the practical sense. The third trilogy commenced by The Force Awakens is all well and good, but Episode VII is something that has always been (at the very least) plausible since 1983. A stand-alone movie (a designation for which Rogue One barely qualifies) is both uncharted territory and also looks to be the new norm of this franchise.
This is what ‘more Star Wars’ looks like. And it looks… promising I guess?
By way of plot summary, given that it’s a Star Wars movie, I think it’s safest to go with the simplest of broad strokes. It’s the story of how the Rebels came into possession of the plans that set the story in motion in the original Star Wars. If you know what I’m talking about, then that’s enough of a plot summary for you. If you have no idea what I’m talking about… hang in there.
Therefore, anyone who’s seen Star Wars (or even the first ten minutes of Star Wars) knows how Rogue One ends in a big-picture sense, so it’s remarkable that the final moments of Rogue One are by far its most thrilling (and offers further proof that the new Star Wars movies are really good at leaning on the Original Trilogy, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing). And damn are they thrilling final moments.
And I realize the ending is thrilling in part because it was properly built up to (and thus it’s unreasonable to expect the entire movie to deliver at that high level), but the final moments just make me wish the rest of the movie was nearly as good as the final half hour. The first hour jumps around far too much and takes a long while to set things up, peppered with a handful of action set-pieces that feel like obligatory pacing check marks as opposed to necessary or thrilling (save for anytime Donnie Yen is on screen…damn). And yet, throughout the extensive set-up, the movie manages to spend precious little of this time giving our characters personality or interesting back stories or satisfying emotional connections.
Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and my boy Riz Ahmed (have you watched The Night Of yet?) all do fine with what they’re given, but the characters are disappointingly forgettable (and given the talent involved, it’s hard to blame the actors more than the writers). Here’s a fun game after watching it: compare the personalities and complexities of Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Wakens to those of Jyn, Cassian, and Bodhi in Rogue One. I’m not saying Rogue One has to measure to up the last movie in every way, but that helps illustrate how flat these characters are. That said, Ben Mendelsohn as Krennic, while no Kylo Ren, actually gives a pretty great performances as one of the movie’s most interesting characters (he also made the first season of Bloodline watchable, if you’re looking for more Bendelsohn). And regardless of how underused Mads Mikkelsen is as Galen Erso, an architect of the Death Star (for all of two scenes), it’s still Mads Mikkelsen.
As I alluded, even before the lights go down in the theater and the Lucasfilm logo appears on screen, Rogue One exists as a litmus test. The very idea of it is a litmus test. Disney dipping their toe into the Star Wars universe outside of the three-trilogy boundary lines drawn by George Lucas, testing audiences’ passion (and patience) for the minutia of this epic story. I’m not the first one to make this observation, so pick your favorite hot take and read that.
Interestingly, the ultimate execution of Rogue One is perfectly in keeping with the idea that the film is a litmus test. It’s not quite a home run (like I thought The Force Awakens was) and it’s certainly not a dud (pick your favorite prequel for your chosen ‘dud’ example); it’s a solid B+ that takes too long to get where it’s going and doesn’t satisfactorily develop its characters, but is still at times thrilling and remarkable in ways that just make you wish the rest of the movie was better. Basically, Rogue One is appropriately adequate. It’s not so good or so bad to be an anomaly and thus an unreliable barometer for how audiences will respond to Star Wars movies released with ever-increasing frequency (e.g. there will be no “Well, this one was amazing/shitty, but how will the next one be??”).
If Disney makes enough of these stand-alone Star Wars movies (there are currently two in development, with more promised), I’m sure there will be home runs and duds, but I think the reception to the ‘pretty good’ ones will be the most telling. In the case of Rogue One, some viewers will surely be bored by its drawn-out set-up and will be left cold by its action set-pieces (save for the last one) and lack of character arcs, others will find the climax more than worth the set-up and will be tickled by the plethora of nods to A New Hope, rewarding those paying close (or even not-so-close) attention.
And that’s probably how it will go until Disney stops making these. A “good enough” movie with the right amount of Star Wars-y stuff will be good enough for some, and not enough for others.
But honestly, the ending is amazing. See it for the last half hour. See it because it’s a Star Wars movie. That still means something for now.