Last year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens underwhelmed me with its formulaic approach and sly, winking nostalgia for the franchise’s past. This year, I went into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) with genuine enthusiasm, excited to see a standalone story less beholden to fan service and character continuity. Alas, I slammed into a wall of flat characterization, hollow spectacle, and an execution that felt soulless.
Bridging the gap between the prequels and the original trilogy, Rogue One tells the story of the brave rebel group that stole the Death Star blueprints which would enable Luke, Leia, Han, and company to score a massive blow against the Empire at the end of A New Hope. The key figure in this effort is Jyn (Felicity Jones), daughter of the Death Star’s reluctant architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Coerced into completing the Death Star, Galen has been secretly resisting the Empire from within, and his end game is to deliver to the Rebels the means of the Death Star’s undoing — a mission that relies on Jyn’s reluctant participation. A ragtag crew forms around Jyn, including ruthless rebel agent Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind martial artist Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his hard-nosed companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). This group forms the core of a rogue faction that inspires the Rebellion to stand up against the Empire.
Rogue One is generally entertaining, and not without its strengths; it’s certainly the franchise’s most mature, least cartoonish entry, with more rough edges and gray areas. At times it embraces its secret roots as a war film, reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone, with its roster of misfits and scoundrels pulling off a highly dangerous, unlikely operation. And the first major action setpiece — an ambush orchestrated by the forces of Forest Whitaker’s rebel-within-the-Rebellion character, Saw Gerrera — is a gripping sequence of guerilla insurgency.
Unfortunately, the film has a debilitating flaw: uninspired characters. Jones and Luna are convincing enough soldiers, but aren’t particularly interesting, both poorly defined by the script and rather lifeless in the execution. They’re overshadowed by the underused Yen and Jiang, and to a degree by Tudyk’s robotic comic relief. But none of the heroes have enough presence to carry the day, or, for that matter, to match the expected but capable villainy of Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial officer Orson Krennic. The absence of a truly rallying team undermines what might otherwise have been a epic adventure.
Another major disappointment is that Jones is very nearly the token female character in the film; both the Rebellion and the Empire are shockingly male-dominated, even moreso than previous Star Wars films. (There are barely even any female extras in the background shots.) It doesn’t help that the film is structurally incoherent (especially early), and that there is creepy, jarring CGI stunt-casting, and that the universe’s technological rules vary randomly at the whims of the plot, or that the music doesn’t quite match John Williams’ usual memorable standard. But none of those issues would be as noticeable had the film given us a hero to rival Daisy Ridley’s Rey or John Boyega’s Finn. Instead, an unmemorable band of anonymous characters deliver a flashy but disposable spectacle.