So I've gone and seen the film that didn't particularly need to be made but they went ahead and did it anyway!
I'm going to keep the majority of this spoiler free, there might be a couple of little things so perhaps wait until you've watched it if you want to go to it fresh. There will be a section with a couple of BIG spoilers and I'll give a suitable content warning in the article when we approach it.
Rogue One: A Pointless Tale
Right off the bat, it's facing an uphill battle, namely, we know what happens at the end: they get the plans, so that the Death Star will later be destroyed by a moist teenager and his slightly rapey friend with his pet carpet. It's hard to make us care about the getting the means to what is, to us, a foregone conclusion. There was a missed opportunity to instead bring some more focus on another theme/subject, but I'll talk about that in my missed opportunities section.
Having the Death Star roaming around in this film, fully operational was a bit underwhelming too. I didn't feel that threat I felt in A New Hope, it was just, sort of, there. (Also, the Death Star can travel at light speed? WHAT?! Can everything now? I'm still annoyed by Return of the Jedi showing X-Wings capable of doing that, I always thought it should be those larger craft only that could do it, that X-Wings and TIE fighters were short range craft that had to be deployed from a larger ship, basically a space aircraft carrier; while I thought the Death Star was too big on the end of the spectrum – it was too big and powerful to be able to move that fast, it just had to sort of lumber across space, otherwise there would never be a rebellion, ever, if it could just teleport and WHABAM any planet.) The focus of this film being on the completed Death Star slightly undermines falls flat because we know it gets blown up later on, and because the last film, the first in this reboot of the franchise, had a BIGGERER, more dangerous Death Star that existed almost entirely to make jokes about the Death Star always having a weakness and being in the film because of its pop cultural significance to us and blah blah blah. I sort of knew this going into the film, but it did nothing to overcome this obstacle and it was highlighted to me when watching it.
Now, onto some good stuff.
Rogue One: A Visual Story
Most of the good stuff in it is on the production side of things, my gripes are basically just in the story and the writing. The action set pieces were fun, they were varied, the visuals were interesting and varied, there's some fine cinematography in this. I even imagined how a particular scene of nothing more than people walking down a hall would have been filmed in the prequels, flat and utterly uninteresting, just a necessary shot to get to the boring effects scene; in this film, the camera was dynamic, giving real movement to the scene, injecting a shot of adrenaline when it needed it. Fine stuff.
One of my favourite images is the imperial research facility that was on the side of the cliff, in the rain. Seeing it from distance and hearing an authoritarian voice over a loudspeaker, oohh it gives me chills. I have no idea why, but that sort of image at a distance, being able to hear something indistinct that still conveys some totalitarian voice or something, it just works. It's good worldbuilding, makes us feel like we're on an adventure because our heroes are scoping out the well defended lion's den that there's no easy way into and hearing the noise in the distance shows us how close to danger we are while also doing that thing of making it feel like a much larger world – i.e. it will continue to make that noise even if we weren't here, it realises the world a little. I know this is a tiny point, but it really did stick out as a positive to me.
Same with the shield gate and the planet at thee end, all new technology and new beach location to fight on, all good stuff, keeping it varied and dynamic. The influence of Kurosawa was evident in a lot of shots, particularly the opening discussion with the villain which was part Kurosawa (heightened by the characters' choice of space-Japanese clothes that are a Star Wars staple) and part WWII meeting an evil nazi officer (I thought of meeting Hans Landa at the beginning of Inglorious Basterds). Really well shot that scene, looked great. I just wish that wasn't a pointless scene...oh, wait, that's for later.
My only issues on the production side of things was the use of location subtitles at the beginning and the music, both failed to make it feel Star Wars-y. I know it's a strange thing to care about but the location subtitles really bugged me. They were just unnecessary and served only to underpin how many locations we visited in the first twenty minutes. I forgot the names of half the places because we only visited them for one scene, it just wasn't necessary and is out of kilter with Star Wars. We never needed a subtitle to tell us about Tattooine, and we could also keep up much easier because the number of locations was very limited, keeping the story streamlined: in orbit of Tattooine, on Tattooine, escape Tattooine, former Alderaan, Death Star, Yavin, BOOM. Bouncing around all these planets with their made-up names, you have to use the light touch, like A New Hope. Just a few new names, thank you. This is mainly a complaint with just the opening, once it got going, it was fine on the location side of things. And the music, oh how we missed you, John Williams. I knew this time would come, where we couldn't expect that fantastic score to turn up, but it was really obvious. The music in the film kept hinting at a Williams style of score but pulling back at the last second, leaving the audience very unfulfilled. It would build up with familiar notes, making you think of John Williams, then move off in another, unmemorable direction, leaving you still thinking of John Williams. it was, at times, a detriment to the film, and really pulled back the Star Wars feel of the film.
Finally, a little list of likes and dislikes that are production related: that first explosion was very cool; uncanny valley Grand Moff Tarkin is uncanny and distracting; storm troopers were great, particularly that dirty, tired one in the prison ship at the beginning; uncanny valley Leia is uncanny and distracting; and cool new ship designs, even if one of them looked like a turtle (not a negative).
Rogue One: A Muddled Story
So, as I said, the problems are mainly story-based. The main problems are that there's no real villain – this new managing director of the Death Star or whatever his title was wasn't particularly threatening, didn't have an aura of malice or anything. I just didn't feel anything when he was on screen. Having both him and Tarkin, usually squabbling, felt unnecessary. Either just have Tarkin (which I didn't want because of the uncanny valley and the fact that it sounded nothing like Peter Cushing) or just have the new guy, give him a chance to be a villain. He already had to contend with Vader's cameo. It felt like he didn't have a huge amount of agency.
It's fine that he has to report to superior officers – hell, Vader has to report to the Emperor – but make him scary on his own terms. Tarkin was a great villain in the original because he had the ability to call off Vader. We were already scared and intimidated by Vader because of, oh, I don't know, everything he said and did. Then there's this old guy who's most famous for killing Dracula and he tells Vader to stop choking expendable general no.4 and Vader listens. It gives Tarkin an immediate threat and doesn't diminish Vader. We all know, Tarkin too, that Vader could kill him if he wanted to, but he's a blunt tool that needs to be kept in check, and Tarkin's your man for that. BAM! Two great villains established with minimal effort. This guy, I don't remember his name, I'll call him Jim. No, that's too similar to Jyn's name. So I'll change her name to Felidia. No, that's too similar...
Horace, I'll call him. Horace was a bit whiney in wanting to stay in control of the Death Star, which removed the threat of the Empire slightly. So much so that he has a meeting with good ol' Darth about Tarkin not playing fair and gets told by the big man himself that he's still in charge, but not without a force choke to remind him of his place, with Vader saying, 'Be careful not to choke on your ambition.' Vader engages in word play now? That was a weird line, bit of a pointless scene.
Also, Jyn was a bit of a blank slate. Didn't really get invested in her relationship with her father, I don't think it really needed much of that. Just have Jyn there on her own, maybe a few lines of dialogue about her father to give her some backstory and a reason to join the rebellion, that's all it needed. So the protagonist and the antagonist were a bit absent in the film, which was unfortunate. I was longing for last year's instalment of Kylo 'I goddamn hate all these consoles so I'm-a-smash them' Ren and Rey 'I can't be bothered to think of a suitable nickname' Charles. While Force Awakens had plenty of its own story problems, it had a much better group of central characters that really added to the sense of adventure, very much on brand with the franchise.
As I said before, the beginning was clunky, with too much hopping around of locations without a huge amount happening in each one. I would have preferred a central locus for the opening events, in the mould of Tattooine or Hoth. Just have that Jedah place be the opening planet, and everyone comes together naturally. I really liked the pilot guy, I'll call him Trevor, because I really didn't take in anyone's name from this film. Trevor was fun, felt quite real in trying to get on the good side of the Empire at the beginning but realising there was no good side. Only thing is, I cannot remember what it was he was doing at the beginning. He had some sort of MacGuffin that was then dispensed with fairly quickly. What was that damned MacGuffin? It was part of a trend of having a few too many things being thrown around in the beginning section of the film, made it quite muddled, until it settled itself down, around the time they got to Jedah.
The guy who helps Jyn from the bunker at the opening flashback and who turns up later...yeah, he didn't get enough attention for me to care too much about. There were too many people not doing much for me to get heavily invested in, what I like to call the Game of Thrones problem. Too many people, not enough characters.
Right, I'll move onto a final section, one that has spoilers in it, so I'll give my final verdict here. Overall a quality-made production, glossy and interesting to look at, but it lacked an emotional core, had a muddled story, and lacked a little in interesting characters. Ultimately, it was hard to get invested, which was a shame because, as I'll discuss in a moment, there was some real potential there, occasionally hinted at. I think I have to go for a 6.5/10 for this one. The visuals weren't enough to make up for a story that didn't need to be told and was unable to overcome that main challenge. Worst non-Prequel Star Wars (1. ESB, 2. ANH, 3. TFA, 4. ROTJ, 5. RO:ASWS). But I did not feel like my money was wasted, it was a fine thing to see at the cinema, it was a spectacle, it wasn't bad per se, just not on the mark.
Right, final section, and here be spoilers.
Rogue One: A Series of Missed Opportunities
Seriously, here be spoilers. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
I really liked the parts where they showed the Rebellion having a dark side to it, that they weren't just pure and wholesome heroes. There needed to be more of that. The first time Jyn is confronted with the idea that doing nothing is what allows the evil Empire to win, it's great, and politically bloody relevant right now. Echoes of WWII of course (because that's what Star Wars is, after all) but echoes of the present day too. And then they just move on. They needed to build on this idea a lot more, rather than just having two scenes. The secondary protagonist, Wallace or Samuel, whatever, Diego Luna, when he killed that guy at the beginning, that was great, and unexpected. It reminded us of Han shooting Greedo, that this is not a friendly galaxy, and that these rebels are prepared to do anything, that they're embittered by this long war against a seemingly unstoppable foes. Then he tells Jyn that line about doing nothing being bad so that she joins up but she joins up a little too willingly. And then there's one more small conversation about it before Jyn gives an impassioned speech to convince the rebels to take the fight to the Empire. It was a little out of left field. Jyn hadn't been that vocal about being in the Rebellion, it wasn't really earned that she should be making this speech. I liked the idea of that speech, it needed more build up though, more focus on what it means to be a rebel, how hard it is, but that they have to fight, HAVE to. So, a missed opportunity there, one that would have really helped build up the emotional core.
Jimmy Smits turns up just to say he's off to Alderaan basically and tell the audience he's bringing Leia on board...I think. Anyway, the Alderaan point. He says it and we're supposed to go, 'Oh no, but Alderaan will be blowed up. Bye Jimmy!' But it just felt like fan service rather than an emotional moment (and this film's moments of fan service were really forced, like bumping into ugly man and ball-chin guy and having a stare off, really?). There was a missed opportunity here to give this film an emotional edge, and to also give A New Hope a new emotional edge. Someone or something important should have gone to Alderaan with Jimmy Smits-Organa, someone or thing that was vital to the Rebellion or emotionally important to us. In the context of this film, we know they're doomed, then, when we see A New Hope next, we'll remember that that person or thing is on the planet and is now lost forever. There should have been an effort to smuggle whoever this person or whatever this thing is to Alderaan, perhaps a valuable rebel commander that needs hiding or someone innocent that needs sheltering. Then when Jimmy says he's off to Alderaan, we're punched in the gut when we realise it's a doomed mission, and no matter how much we scream at the screen, they can never hear us and will proceed anyway. That's where the prequel device can be an asset. Normally it's a real hindrance, because we know if someone dies or not and putting them in mortal danger doesn't feel as tense. But if something's going to be blown up in an impersonal way, in the manner that Alderaan is, you can use that to your advantage. Alas, another missed opportunity.
And that's about it. Sure there were other things I liked and disliked about it, I can't list everything here. It just sort of failed on the emotional level which Star Wars is usually really good at, even though it had a couple of opportunities to do so that were left unexplored. It also didn't have a sense of urgency, primarily because we know what happens in the end, and it didn't have a sense of adventure, which The Force Awakens was good at, well, awakening. After the Prequels, we needed a fun adventure that was just an adventure with heroes and villains, Episode VII did everything it needed to to restore that to Star Wars. Rogue One didn't quite fill those boots.
One point on the ending. At first I was kind of groaning that it tied directly into the beginning of A New Hope, just because I don't need my films to tie into the ones that come chronologically later. It was stupid in Revenge of the Sith that everything tied up so nicely to how it would next appear in A New Hope, meaning that Yoda and Obi-Wan just sat on their arses for nineteen years, which didn't quite fit in with who we thought they were. Same with the terrible Hobbit films, one of their minor problems being that they felt the need to bring it back to Fellowship and remind us how much of a better film that one was. However, once I realised and accepted that it was going to tie directly into the spaceship battle at the beginning of Episode IV, I actually got really excited. It was tense, dramatic, urgent, it really bloody worked, surprising me. But then I realised, Vader and a fleet just turned up at the end, to take care of the rebel fleet. Where the hell was he earlier? What better things did he have to do that day? Slight problem there, but a little quibble only. It was weird to then see uncanny valley Leia, again raising the problem that she hadn't been in any of the film until then. Just a few lines of dialogue to say she's out and about rebelling or set up that we need to rendezvous with her or something. Again, it just felt like fan service. As did that scene in the corridor where Vader is chopping up people. It kind of had me on board at the cinema, but the more I've thought about it, the less I like it. It just kind of dispels the badass nature of Vader's character. When he turns up in A New Hope, he doesn't need to get out his lightsaber to reveal that he's a villain. Cutting people up is way below his pay grade, that's minions' work. An attitude he continues throughout the oridge tridge – we don't see him strolling across the Hoth battlefield slashing at rebels, no he sits back and lets the imperial soldiers do all the grunt work, work which has a high mortality rate. But I did like the tension that arose from the fact that the Rebellion was so close to losing the plans, that gave it a little edge. Even if it, just like the rest of the film, was simply an exercise in fan service.