(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios)
*Disclaimer: Because of the omnipresence of the Star Wars franchise, I have previously workshopped the ideas in this piece in conversations with various friends. Though the opinions in this article represent my true feelings about Rogue One and ideas certainly never emerge in a vacuum, thoughts from others certainly influenced how I viewed and interpreted the film and I wanted to credit that here. Additionally, Jenny Nicholson’s review and analysis deals with similar themes and goes into more depth regarding the problems with the film, and likewise influenced (and when I first watched the movie, confirmed) my feelings toward Rogue One. Nevertheless, as part of a (potential) series examining why certain movies with good ideas and potential just “don’t work,” I feel this piece offers some insight and originality into the mechanics of storytelling.*
In December 2016, Disney released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise to that point. With the financial success of Force Awakens and the sheer brand power of the series, the studio looked to instantaneously capitalize on Star Wars mania by releasing a new film one year after the previous installment.
But, unlike the previously released films, Rogue One offered something new, in that it offered something old. Rather than a unique story building off of its predecessor, Rogue One focused on events after the much derided prequel trilogy but before the events of A New Hope, explaining how the Rebel Alliance acquired the plans for the Galactic Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. This “midquel” provided Star Wars fans with information to answer unsolved questions as well as an opportunity to tell a new story and experiment with the traditional formula and storytelling.
Rogue One follows Jyn Erso and her ragtag cohorts as they learn about the Death Star and attempt to steal its design plans and relay them to the Rebel Alliance to prevent mass destruction across the galaxy. They are challenged by Orson Krennic and the Imperial Army and eventually get caught up in a major land and space battle on the planet Scarif, making the ultimate sacrifice in order to deliver “a new hope” to the rebels
If you have not seen the film, the names of the characters and the planet are likely unfamiliar to you, constructed to sound equally familiar and foreign in order to depict people and societies in a galaxy far, far away. If you have seen the film, however, the names of the characters and the planet Scarif are STILL likely unfamiliar to you.
Did you remember that Felicity Jones’ character in Rogue One was named Jyn Erso? Or did you just call her “Felicity Jones” or “other Rey?” I literally had to look up the planet where the main battle, the climax of the film, took place and cross-reference it with various Star Wars wikis to double check my information.
Rogue One made over one billion dollars at the global box office and received fairly good reviews upon release, but it is ultimately a film that just doesn’t work. Unlike that other prequel film I wrote about, Rogue One isn’t simply a collection of references attempting to pass itself off as a story or an appendix of unnecessary information on screen. The film is an attempt to do something interesting with Star Wars property and experiment with story concepts, dealing with covert operations and focusing on “the other guys” involved in warfare rather than generals or space samurai. It offers a good premise, how the rebels got the Death Star plans, and has a solid narrative the successfully builds to the events of the original Star Wars, standing up to evil and making the ultimate sacrifice for the rebellion, dying in the fire the superweapon they were trying to stop, demonstrating the power of the Death Star and the resolve of the Empire.
Rogue One is composed of good storytelling pieces and ideas but ultimately does not come together because of the main characters and their lack of development. The narrative arc of the film wants the audience to sympathize with the main characters and feel an emotional gut punch when they are destroyed by the Death Star’s laser cannon. This pathos never comes because the characters are underwritten, particularly appalling for a Star Wars film. The Star Wars films that worked the best, the original trilogy and Force Awakens, are character driven stories, intentionally borrowing from Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” narrative structure. Rogue One fails to develop its characters in the same way, rushing from planet to planet and plot point to plot point in order to finally get to the action spectacle of the third act.
A perfectly illustrative example of this: a friend of mine recently let me know that Disney was beginning production on a new Star Wars show for its forthcoming streaming service. This new series would focus on the adventures and exploits of the male protagonist from Rogue One. In response, I asked for the name of this supposedly central character that would headline the upcoming series, of which I got no answer. Cassian Andor was the name of the main male character, played by Diego Luna, but even if you did see Rogue One you likely had to look that one up just as I had to look up Scarif.
This is not simply an issue of faulty memory, it is difficult to remember the names of the characters in Rogue One because they are not written in a way to truly care about them. Mentioning the original trilogy immediately invokes Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader, etc. Rey, Finn, and Poe were the highlights of both Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Hell, even the prequel trilogy brings characters to mind first and foremost, regardless of whether those characters were good or bad.
But Rogue One? Actors come to mind, Felicity Jones, Forest Whitaker, maybe Donnie Yen, along with the space battle and the ending scene with Darth Vader, but not the characters you are supposed to care about. The characters aren’t written with any personal or internal conflict to allow for development or a character arc throughout the film (a sense of “want” versus “need”), and the main characters are fundamentally devoid of any personality other than a dispassionate sense of duty. This makes it difficult if not impossible to relate to or sympathize with the characters experiencing peril and putting their lives on the line and makes their sacrifice ultimately meaningless, nullifying the intended story arc.
Gareth Edwards served as the director for Rogue One after previously directing the 2014 version of Godzilla. You know, the Godzilla film with a great action scene action scene at the end but too much focus on underwritten and uninteresting characters. This is the very same problem that plagues Rogue One, a film with a great deal of potential to tell a different kind of Star Wars story along with filling in details from previous films regardless of its role in brand management for Disney. Yet, the film’s poorly written, bland characters disrupt its narrative arc, a missed opportunity to do something innovative or interesting by a film that just doesn’t work.