So now it’s apparent: the gimmick of the Star Wars franchise has outshone its obligation to strong storytelling. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a disappointment because of its obligation to the series’ own mythos (the same Achilles heel that weakened the prequels) and special effects above narrative quality. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits nearly all the right notes with breezy, rich flair — a film review) walked a tightrope in pulling off a rather decent overdue sequel to Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, but it succeeded. The weak links of this tightrope, however, become rather obvious early on in Rogue One.
The cramming together of storytelling, the overshadowing concern to keep costume and spaceship vehicle design fresh but familiar and sly winks for the fans all cave under their own weight via flimsy editing that never allows any breathing room for the actors to perform. Certain cutaways, scenes and even pacing issues reveal a weakness when you have opposing visions clash into a mishmash that has to make a deadline preset by a major studio. It’s a cold fact made obvious by a film that should have serviced a piece of a larger story that is loved by so many, including this writer, who grew up with the memory of seeing the first of the Star Wars films in the movie theater.
The problems are rather basic, and it’s awfully sad that such a strong cast could not redeem a film so concerned with superficiality, but it’s an uphill battle against editing and those effects. Felicity Jones, that truly terrific English actress playing the film’s hero, Jyn Erso, is reduced to being a pawn to move the plot along. The editors have hacked up her performance for reaction shots by other actors and intense action sequences that overshadow any chance for Jones to shine through. Her character hardly ever achieves genuine sympathy, as the film relies on fleshing her out via sentimental, hardly revealing backstory and a quest less challenging to her character as it is obliged to fleshing out the backstory of Star Wars: A New Hope.
More interesting and on a more obvious level is a surprisingly grim and sarcastic droid named K-2SO (whose lines are delivered on point by voice actor Alan Tudyk). The mortal danger that this ragtag group must confront is often softened by K-2’s penchant to offer odds not unlike C-3PO in the earlier films but with a certain grimness as black as the metal he was built with. On a more subtle level, the human character who shines as a performance is the conflicted Captain Cassian Andor played by Mexican actor Diego Luna. It is Luna who is granted the space to perform, as he carries a secret that will need to be redeemed should he gain the audience’s sympathy.
The other performances, including a rather manic one by Forest Whitaker that is unfortunately overshadowed by Frank Booth-like prop, are hardly enough to keep the film engaging. Special effects and a drawn out battle with a subplot that sounds like a Rube Goldberg device in the pieces that must fall in place to be successful, overtake everything. Even worse, however are the special effects mixed with performance. Let it suffice to say that digital representations of human beings are far from the point of withstanding scrutiny when you have a great actor like Ben Mendelsohn in the mix.
If Disney wants the Star Wars myth to support its industry the filmmakers will have to focus better on basic things that made it great: strong acting and writing. There’s hardly a chance for any of that to carry a movie as long and plodding as Rogue One.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story runs 133 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens everywhere this Friday, Dec. 16. Disney invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.