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Rogue One is an unfulfilled promise of a new, more expansive Star Wars story

The new standalone film could have built out the Star Wars movie universe. Instead, it just reinforced what was already there.

Diego Luna and Felicity Jones stand with K-2S0 in Rogue One Lucasfilm

The promise of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is captured in its subtitle: It’s not the Star Wars story; it’s a Star Wars story, presumably one of many in a vast universe of possibilities.

The seven Star Wars films that have been made up until now have all followed essentially the same saga: the family and mentor-driven story of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and Han Solo and a pair of faithful droid companions, R2D2 and C-3PO, all set against the backdrop of the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. Part of the thrill of the Star Wars franchise is that it has always hinted at a rich, expansive narrative world beyond the main story — but Rogue One is the first Star Wars film to actually deliver on that promise and branch out.

In other words, it’s the first of the movies that attempts to embrace the infinite promise of the larger Star Wars universe, rather than just the primary Star Wars saga. And in doing so, Rogue One hints at the promise of that universe — but ultimately doesn’t live up to its potential.

Rogue One suggests it’s going to distinguish itself within franchise lore — then pulls back

Rogue One starts out on a windswept plain, flanked by imposing mountains in the background. It’s a beautiful opening sequence, one that foreshadows the darkness of the movie to come. From there, it takes viewers on a quick tour of a series of locations: a bustling interstellar trading outpost, an imperial labor camp, an occupied moon being strip-mined for resources, and, eventually, back to the rebel base at Yavin 4, a location that Star Wars fans will of course be familiar with already. At each one of these waypoints, we meet a handful of new characters, who of course end up on a high-stakes mission together, along with a few characters we’ve met before.

Director Gareth Edwards, working with cinematographer Greig Fraser, imbues these locations with a sense of gloomy desperation, but also with a sense of raw physical beauty. He’s a great admirer of scenery, and often stops to show off just how gorgeous these interplanetary vistas are. Each of these locations is also dense with people and background information — with the suggestion of a living world, with stories that extend beyond the cast of characters we’re already following.

New characters. New locations. A darker, grittier tone. At some point early in the movie, I wrote in my notes that while Rogue One clearly nods to other films, and is built solidly out of Star Wars franchise lore, it is not a rehash. This was Star Wars, through and through, but not the Star Wars we’ve seen so many times before.

Forest Whitaker plays Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera in Rogue One.

And then about an hour in, it started to feel a little more familiar. Once again, there’s a mid-movie sequence in which the Death Star brutally annihilates an entire civilization — this time a city rather than a planet — which helps demonstrate the stakes of the rebellion’s fight against the empire. A little while later, there’s a mentor/father figure whose death motivates the hero to take bold action. There’s a finale that starts with the rebels using a stolen code to enter imperial territory, and then, in further shades of Return of the Jedi, revolves around the coordination of space and land forces to take down a massive imperial shield system. The movie ends by creating a direct link with the beginning of A New Hope, effectively recreating that movie’s famous opening sequence in reverse.

This isn't just homage. It's a kind of timidity, an unwillingness to break the franchise mold — even in an installment supposedly meant to do precisely that.

It doesn’t help that Rogue One’s characters come across as so lifeless and instrumental. Only Alan Tudyk’s comic-relief robot, K-2SO, has anything like a memorable personality. Otherwise, the script dramatically underserves virtually all of the characters, giving us little nonessential information about who they are and how they relate to each other. This is a team-on-a-mission movie with almost no team dynamics.

Rogue One’s hints of promise make its failure to live up to that promise more frustrating

Rogue One isn’t strictly a spunky contemporary remix of Star Wars stories past, like The Force Awakens was last year; it boasts plenty of genuinely new ideas, especially about the conflicted internal politics of the rebellion itself. Rogue One goes further than any Star Wars film before in embracing the notion that the rebel alliance can be plausibly understood as a fractious band of terrorist radicals.

But the fact that Rogue One does more than simply coast on well-executed nostalgia is part of what makes it so frustrating. Few of the movie’s best ideas are developed beyond an initial reference or two, and the jumbled editing, which seems to be a product of heavy reshoots over the summer, means that all those clever ideas get short shrift in order for the film to deliver something more linked to the classic Star Wars experience.

Darth Vader stands in front of a display in Rogue One
This guy looks familiar...

Indeed, for a standalone film, Rogue One is awfully dependent on the rest of the franchise. It’s packed full of winking nods and references to series lore, and fully understanding all the intricacies of the plot requires having a strong grasp of both the original trilogy and the prequels, because the story it tells is essentially the connecting material between the two. Kathleen Kennedy, who is overseeing the franchise for Disney, recently said that this would be the first Star Wars film with a “beginning, middle, and an end,” but at times it feels more like a movie that’s all middle — as if it’s really just Stars Wars Episode III½.

Rogue One was an opportunity to branch out beyond the Star Wars saga as we know it, to tell stories that are more than just footnotes in the existing movie timeline. There’s plenty of precedent for this in the now-defunct Expanded Universe (which admittedly spanned quality levels as much as it spanned new material), as well as in the two non-movie additions we’ve seen to the Star Wars canon over the past decade, the animated series The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, both of which managed to delve into the often delightfully bizarre and outlandish intricacies of the larger Star Wars universe, even while maintaining clear links to the films.

Granted, those series had the advantage of being lower-stakes productions with dozens of episodes to work with, rather than megamovies with two-and-a-half-hour time limits. But the breadth of characters and stories we’ve seen in those series reveals just how much possibility lies in taking the Star Wars universe off in strange and unfamiliar directions.

Edwards’s often majestic Rogue One gives us brief hints of what it might be like to watch a franchise expansion that truly commits to building out the Star Wars universe. But in the end, it turns out to be content with simply filling that universe in.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is playing in theaters throughout the country.

Watch: What to Know About Rogue One

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