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Rogue One review: this is the first Star Wars movie to acknowledge the whole franchise is about war

It’s often incoherent and messy. But it’s also beautiful and has a strong central theme.

Rogue One
The Death Star is nearing completion, and only Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) can save the day in Rogue One.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

People die in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. A lot of them.

They die horrible deaths in spaceship crashes. They’re cut down by light sabers. They’re obliterated by giant explosions. They die brutally and nastily and quickly. They die, as most of us do, with unfinished business. In one terrible sequence, whole swaths of people are mowed down by an advancing enemy, as they try desperately to accomplish the one thing they need to do to get the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance.



Oh, yes, this is a Star Wars movie — the first of Lucasfilm’s new “anthology” entries to the franchise, which will tell stories in and around the established Star Wars universe. Rather than picking up where last year’s The Force Awakens left off, Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebels got the Death Star plans in the first place, the one that set the plot of 1977’s Star Wars in motion and kicked off this entire saga.

As such, the movie is caught between the artistic impulses of its director, Gareth Edwards, and its corporate masters. Sometimes, it’s a beautifully constructed antidote to years and years of fake, digitized movie destruction, with precisely crafted frames and genuinely groundbreaking cinematography. At other times, it’s a bumpily edited mess that was too-obviously assembled in post-production from a variety of possible outcomes.

It’s a flawed movie, but a good one, sometimes more interesting as a concept than a story. But, oh, what a concept!

Rogue One is a Star Wars movie with an emphasis on the “war”

Rogue One
Felicity Jones and Diego Luna play two people trying to save the galaxy in Rogue One.

The unifying theme of Rogue One is simple: People die in wars. If the Star Wars saga is about a war between freedom and tyranny, then a lot of people are going to die fighting that war. Those on the side of good are going to make questionable decisions. Those on the side of evil are sometimes just doing their jobs but will get their lives snuffed out anyway.

Edwards emphasizes this inevitable death throughout. When two starships collide, he’ll intercuts shots of the people inside those starships, toppling over, never having realized that this particular day was the day they would die.

In and of itself, these insert shots of the humans in the midst of destruction are no different from the ones you might see in other sci-fi adventures, but Edwards repeats this pattern. He always shows you someone’s body flying backward from an explosion, presumably broken. Two Imperial Stormtroopers shoot the breeze about a work-related matter before they’re gunned down. Main characters die. Villains die. Faceless extras die. And they all die the same way — too soon.

Edwards is not a terribly great filmmaker when it comes to telling stories about human beings. His first feature, the microbudgeted indie film Monsters, was essentially a small-scale road-trip romance that just happened to have a giant monster movie taking place in the background, and he’s tried to apply that approach to both of his big studio productions; here are some real human moments happening in front of the chaos.

I loved the first of those big studio films, 2014’s Godzilla, but even I would admit that its human characters are one-dimensional at best. Rogue One attempts to craft full character arcs for its most important figures — particularly its main duo, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) — but those arcs lurch awkwardly from one plot point to the next. At one point, I thought the film was missing important footage, because so many scenes were being paid off without any real setup.

Edwards has widely been criticized as loving spectacle for its own sake, rather than loving human beings. But I don’t think that’s accurate, because of how good Edwards is at capturing one human emotion in particular: dread. In all three of his films, he’s tremendous at conveying his characters’ certainty that they’re going to die, as they watch the giant monster or the AT-AT Walker burst toward them through the haze. Sometimes, they’re saved. But much of the time, Edwards’s films live in a realm of quaking terror, in the idea that you can’t escape a very specific death, but can only await it.

He excels at telling stories about what it feels like to be crushed — by a monster, by a war machine, by a political system.

Rogue One isn’t a political film. It’s a political-ish film.

Rogue One
Forest Whitaker stars as the leader of a Rebel splinter group. What does his group want to do? The film isn’t terribly clear.

That general idea — what does it feel like to be crushed? — has led to hopes from some that Rogue One will be a rousing call to arms against the global rise of right wing nationalism. And that reading is certainly easy to make. There are lots of rousing speeches, and some poignant dialogue from characters who call out others for not realizing the desperate straits of those the Empire treats as all but chattel.

But if the film is politically relevant, it’s only accidentally so, not intentionally. I say that not just because Rogue One was completed long before Donald Trump’s election or even Brexit, but because Edwards uses a kind of scattershot approach to political content in his films — he’ll give you just enough of an idea of what he’s going for, but he’s uninterested in pushing any further than that.

An early shot in Rogue One features Stormtroopers patrolling the streets of a city rife with tension between various factions, rolling around in a tank. At various moments, it calls to mind the US occupation of Iraq and police militarization of American cities. But it’s not entirely clear whether Edwards has thought about what these similarities might mean in the larger tapestry of Rogue One beyond “Do you get this reference?” It’s political commentary as Family Guy joke.

To be clear, I don’t think Edwards needs to have his characters take center stage and say, “Fascism is bad. Also, the tank represented occupying forces!” We can draw these parallels for ourselves. But for political nods to work, they must be driven by some larger idea, and Rogue One is too all over the place, without any larger idea to speak of.

For a while, in the early going, it seems like the movie is going to argue that political divisions don’t really matter for most people who aren’t lucky enough to be protagonists (a.k.a. the intergalactic elite), because they might just as easily be killed by the Rebels as by the Empire. But it quickly backs away from that idea, perhaps realizing that it would be harder to sell Rebel Alliance toys if they were painted as too morally murky.

It also never does anything with an early story thread about the Rebels having an offshoot splinter group — led by a character played by the instantly compelling Forest Whitaker — which believes in taking brutal retaliatory measures, instead of attempting to pacify the Empire, as the Rebels apparently do. (Indeed, it’s not clear if the events of Rogue One kick off the war from Star Wars or just sort of take place during a lull in hostilities.) There’s something in here about whether capitulating to an enemy in the name of a greater good is still evil, but Rogue One doesn’t know what to do with it.

Thus, the politics of the movie are mostly aware they should be present, but also not sure-footed enough to be coherent. Which, sadly, is often of a piece with much of the rest of the film.

Rogue One has big script problems, but it also has a good script

Rogue One
It’s also got some blindingly gorgeous images.

Rogue One’s screenplay, from veteran writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, is very obviously a patchwork job.

It establishes character backstories and motivations seemingly at random, it introduces major plot points shortly before they are resolved, and it sends Jyn on a journey from “reluctant passenger in the narrative” to “daring leader” seemingly over the course of a single scene. As in Godzilla, I didn’t really know what any of these people wanted beyond their most obvious, plot-oriented goals.

And yet I found myself occasionally moved by it all the same. Weitz and Gilroy have an ear for a line that neatly summarizes a character’s point of view in a few words, and they write good rousing speeches (though perhaps too many of them). It’s as if Rogue One has a bad script and a good script simultaneously.

The movie has severe story problems — in that the first and second acts are filled with stop-and-start momentum that keeps stumbling just when it’s getting going — as well as one of the better big action climaxes you’ll see in a theater this year. By the time Jyn and her crew are trying to steal the Death Star plans, everything Rogue One is trying to do comes together in a mostly satisfying way.

Do I wish that I cared more about Jyn’s crew as individuals in that third act? Yes. But the actors playing them — particularly Donnie Yen as a blind would-be Jedi and Alan Tudyk’s voice as a sarcastic robot — were so good and having so much fun that the characters manage to coast off of that, just a little bit. And the movie is replete with Star Wars Easter eggs — so many I’m sure I missed a few.

And even when you’re feeling let down by the lurching storytelling, Edwards’s eye for beautiful, almost painterly images carries the day. Rather than offer the sort of bright, poppy frames of most modern blockbusters, Edwards and his director of photography Greig Fraser favor a more diffuse, naturalistic look — the better to contrast with the harsher, more mechanical lighting within the Imperial ships. It could feel soft and unfocused. Instead, it only allows the darkness around the edges of the film’s frames to begin creeping in.

Don’t get me wrong. This is still Star Wars. It’s not going to offer up a blistering tirade against combat, nor a bromide against the military-industrial complex. The good guys are still mostly good. The bad guys are still mostly bad. There’s still a man dressed all in black who can choke you with a hand gesture, and a scrappy band who stands up to all that darkness.

It’s just that where other Star Wars movies focus on the brightness of the stars, Rogue One is a little more comfortable staring at the inky black spaces in between, and wondering what they might hold. I wouldn’t want every Star Wars movie to be like that, but I’m glad this one is.

Rogue One opens in theaters on Friday, December 16. Special preview airings will be held Thursday, December 15.

Watch: The silly original opening for The Force Awakens