By Alex Serrano
Rogue One reminds me of the kind of stories I would make up on the playground in third grade. Which is to say that it has an interesting story, a wonderfully diverse cast, daring feats of bravery, egregious fan-pandering cameos, and Star Destroyers crashing into each other. This is a movie meant to expand the scope of what a Star Wars film can be, and while it does so very well and I hope that Disney continues their trajectory, the film is not without missteps.
The nature of the story, rebel spies on a mission to steal the plans for the planet-killing Death Star, creates a tricky balance between tradition and forging a new path in the Star Wars universe. On the one hand, we know how this ends. Princess Leia receives the plans and jettisons them along with two quippy droids to the desert planet below. Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, et cetera. On the other hand, given the chance, I and probably many other fans will always come out of the woodwork just to see what kinds of new characters and designs they throw our way. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but the prequels represent a daring approach to Star Wars design that we have yet to see again. Unlike Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rogue One has an excuse to be traditional, as it takes place mere days before the beginning of A New Hope.
Some of these character cameos are outright garbage. In the same vein as Finn finding the holo-chess board on the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens, most of the callbacks are pandering and halt all progression of the narrative. For example, Remember when Old Ben Kenobi slices that butt-chinned alien’s arm off in A New Hope? Well that bugger and his mole-nosed buddy make a cameo. R2 and C-3PO make an appearance. Totally unnecessary, especially where it is in the film.
This brings us to the inclusion of Grand Moff Tarkin. Originally played excellently by Peter Cushing, a veteran horror actor (The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula), Cushing elevates A New Hope by adding trademark menace and Shakespearean gravitas. In Rogue One, he is revived through the perceived “miracle” of computer generated imaging and motion capture. Whether you believe that the inclusion was necessary to uphold some vague Imperial hierarchy (which I find to be extremely dubious, as such information only exists in media outside of the films) or you shudder at the zombied return of long-dead actors, it’s hard not to admit that the Tarkin scenes feel very much like a video game cutscene. Very well executed, but ultimately unnerving and distracting when interacting with live-action characters.
Almost every new character is enjoyable to watch, well acted, and… well, I can’t remember most of their names. There’s Imperial pilot guy (Riz Ahmed), Ip Man (Donnie Yen), his friend who has a big gun (Wen Jiang), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian, uh, Rebel guy (Diego Luna). Unfortunately for this “interesting” cast of characters, there’s not much in the movie to really sell that these people care enough about one another or the mission to justify their heroics. They seem flung together D&D style, where some players have great chemistry and take every opportunity to interact, but then there’s that awkward player who’s kind of boring and the DM has to make up stuff for them to do. The last third of this movie screams “HEY! Care about these characters!” even though we are given no reason to do so.
All of this said, I enjoyed the movie! But we need to demand better. Too many movies this year were simply “good enough”. Star Trek Beyond, Finding Dory, Fantastic Beasts, Captain America: Civil War. All are fun and propulsive enough to feel great in the theater and on the walk home, but once you question anything internally, they just fall apart. And because they’re existing properties that we all know, usually we don’t even question whether it was a good or bad movie. Our leftover goodwill from prequels and sequels is dumped undeservingly onto the new Citizen Kane and Zombies XVIII: The Final Battle: A Star Wars Story. You can love something unconditionally and think critically at the same time.