Serviced, the fans have been. Annoyed am I. Clunky cameos and callbacks are a staple of new Star Wars movies, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to discern a creative purpose in the crowd of familiar faces. Rogue One, the first of many spin-offs planned since the Disney takeover, is all about reviving and recasting characters from the Original Trilogy, leading to moments both arbitrary and awkward.
Some of these moments are justified by the movie's close chronological proximity to A New Hope, but the problem isn't so much the individual shots that linger and musical cues that wink aurally as it is the lump sum of these tiresome references. It all feels so utterly pointless to mount such an expensive, lavish production only to show how conveniently several Original Trilogy characters both big and small crossed paths in the days and hours leading up to the events of a movie everyone has seen a million times over the past 40 years.
That all the shots of bit players and iconic droids and Empire employees are grafted onto yet another planet-skipping adventure only further stalls the fun. The plot of Rogue One is arguably the most simplistic of all the theatrically released live-action Star Wars movies and yet it’s edited in such a quickly jumbled manner that it lacks the compact cleanness that streamlined, straightforward action-focused narratives can claim as their greatest benefit.
There’s even a flashback dream sequence that is, predictably, a total waste of time and space. Heroine Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has information worth remembering, but it’s already shared in a prologue that leaves nothing to the imagination. Jyn is living under the oppressive thumb of the Empire just as the villains are finalizing construction on the infamous-only-to-us Death Star, a superweapon that Jyn’s father had a hand in creating.
The Rebel Alliance we know so well from the Original Trilogy needs Jyn so they can earn the trust of an extremist who is holding hostage a defected pilot with a message from Jyn’s dad intended to give the Alliance a leg up on the Empire. This basically amounts to a series of sequences beginning with landing on a planet and ending with a bunch of stuff blowing up.
Less lightsabers and more blasters is meant to mark something of a departure, but beyond bigger set pieces and slicker effects, the action here is woefully reminiscent of the Rebel battles previously glimpsed in Episodes IV, V, and VI. That’s a particularly large disappointment given that director Gareth Edwards previously rehabilitated the American take on Godzilla by staging some spectacularly unique action sequences that grandly captured the human perspective in the midst of giant monster mayhem.
But Edwards was working with a different franchise history there and he had more room to invent imagery considering the gap between the modestly budgeted rubber-suits-and-models Toho films and the digital effects wizardry of modern Hollywood. He crafted an epic experience that was deeply respectful of the source material (unlike Hollywood’s previous attempt to Americanize Godzilla in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 stinker) and yet offered a new angle from which to appreciate the action.
In Rogue One, we’re treated to more X-Wings firing at more TIE Fighters while Star Destroyers fill the space between. The effects work is incredible, of course, especially with how tangible the Star Destroyers in particular appear to be, recalling the model work of the Original Trilogy movies, but the action itself is blandly nostalgic and lacking a spark.
The cast is missing a similar punch that might propel this pic into more engaging territory. Jones is decent and Diego Luna makes a strong showing as a war-weary Rebel fighter, while Donnie Yen gets to flash a few of his marvelous martial arts skills as a blind warrior and Alan Tudyk effectively voices a jaded droid, but with so many characters to juggle and so few arcs to go around, the personalities are more muted than memorable.
As a defender of the prequels, I occupy the position that the performances in a Star Wars movie don’t make or break it and that a character is often at their most valuable simply in how they affect the plot. For the prequels (and arguably the Original Trilogy as well), a character's arc is often more interesting than his or her identity. The opposite is true of last year’s The Force Awakens, where the arcs are derivative, but the personalities sparkle.
While Rogue One mainly follows the newer template to a fault, it at least introduces a significantly important idea involving Jyn’s father and how he factors into the story. It’s an intriguing admittance that cleverly justifies what was previously considered a rather generous convenience in A New Hope.
Beyond that, though, it feels like we’ve been here before and in some cases, it’s because we actually have been. Matching the events of the mission that enabled the Rebel attack on the Death Star to the events of the first Star Wars movie wherein that Rebel attack occurred guarantees familiarity to a degree, but when we reach the end of Rogue One and know that it’s literally nothing more than the beginning of A New Hope with the bonus of 21st century technology, it just feels like the financial enterprise has squashed the creative one.
Why go through all this trouble just to wink at the audience, to reduce your movie’s final send-off moment to a lame reference that was always going to be the most obvious ending available? LucasFilm used to innovate; now they recycle. That galaxy far, far away once felt so huge, but suddenly it’s shrunk, folded in on itself to the point of redundancy.
This renewed version of the Star Wars franchise has become an annoying apology for the Prequel Trilogy and a rose-tinted reminder of the Original Trilogy, neither of which are particularly interesting ways to move forward with the series. This approach will work for many, since the prequels are maligned and the original iconography still carries the most weight, but personally, when it comes to the current franchise model, I just don’t give a sith.