Rogue One is a good movie. But it could have been a great one.
So let’s start with the good stuff. This is the darkest of the movies in the Star Wars universe. Not necessarily the bleakest—I think that award goes to The Empire Strikes Back—but thematically and tonally, it is the darkest. The irony here is that the movie spends a lot of time talking about the necessity of hope. It is, ultimately, hopeful—but it also shows you that the cost of hope can be insurmountably large.
It feels much more like a war movie than the other films in the Star Wars universe. Yes, tragic things happen in the other films, but they’re so largely focused on the hero’s journey that they feel, by and large, like adventure movies with coming-of-age themes. In Rogue One, we’re focused more on the scope and the costs of the decades-long rebellion against the Empire—one that has lost almost all hope.
Anyone who has watched A New Hope knows how our rebels’ mission—stealing the plans for the original Death Star—is going to turn out. But still, director Gareth Edwards has managed to give us a movie that is exciting and suspenseful. He’s aided in no small part by a great cast, led by Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso.
I’m absolutely in love with the fact that they brought the long-dead Peter Cushing back as Grand Moff Tarkin. When I heard they were going to digitally insert him into the movie, I figured he’d be in the background for maybe a few seconds, but no—he’s actually got a substantial role in the story! The process of bringing Cushing back involved CGI, a stand-in, and a voice actor. Others disagree with me, but personally, I thought it looked fantastic. I would not have known that there was anything different about Grand Moff Tarkin if I didn’t realize that Cushing had been dead since 1994. (Also, I really, really hope his estate got compensated for this!)
(On a side note, I’m very excited to see where this technology goes as it improves. Could we get a screwball comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and George Clooney? This is a thing that absolutely must happen!)
As for the not-so-good…
The movies in the Star Wars universe are at their best when their focus is on characters. That’s where Rogue One fails. Story-wise, Rogue One had the potential to be better than The Force Awakens. Rogue One charts out entirely new territory in the Star Wars universe, whereas much of The Force Awakens feels—purposefully, I would argue—like a re-tread of A New Hope. But The Force Awakens introduced new characters, showed you who they were and what their motivation was, and made you care about them. By the end of the movie, I was completely invested in the fates of Rey and Finn.
But the characters in Rogue One—even Jyn herself—feel terribly underwritten. There are six—six!—leading rebels in Rogue One. Each of the characters seemed to have potential, and if Rogue One had been a television miniseries the large leading cast could have been an asset. But in 2 ½ hours of screen time, each of them kind of blends into the background. If they had halved the leading cast, and dug deeper into each of them, the movie would have worked much, much better.
And so we’re left with a movie that could have been—should have been—incredibly powerful and emotional. Instead, when I left the theater, I was like, “Okay, that happened.” Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the movie. But it’s disappointing when I think about how much better it could have been.