Jake Richardson | 22/12/2016
Studio reshoots and overly familiar villains overshadow an otherwise gloriously shot, creatively unique Star Wars film.
When the first teaser trailer for Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One was released, it looked like a breath of fresh air. The Force Awakens had been a solid, but familiar film that looked to purposefully retread old ground. Comparatively, the teaser for Rogue One showed us a film that was defiantly original; a piece of Star Wars canon that would strike a distinctly different tone to those that came before.
Then came the stories about extensive reshoots, changed endings and studio meddling, and everybody got a little nervous. While the end result isn’t the dire disaster of, say, Suicide Squad, it certainly doesn’t live up to the promise of originality that the first teaser trailer held.
Rogue One opens on an Icelandic vista, where Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) has arrived to take away Galen Erso (Mas Mikkelsen), a brilliant engineer who is needed to complete work on the Death Star project Krennic has been left in charge of. Before his wife is killed and he is captured, Galen sends his daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) off to hide. After the danger passes, Jyn is rescued and raised by freedom-fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker).
We cut to many years in the future, and Jyn, now a grown woman, is a Empire prisoner who is broken out by Rebel forces and sent off with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to reconnect with estranged surrogate father Saw Gerrera. The freedom fighter has captured a pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who claims to have a message from Galen Erso about the death star, and Cassian needs Jyn to help him get through the door. They find the message and a holographic Galen tells them how to defeat the planet-destroying weapon, so they take off to get the plans to help them do so. On the way, they collect blind, staff-wielding fighter Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen),
and his machine-gun wielding compatriot Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). The motley crew flies across the galaxy, piloted by sarcastic Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), to get the schematics necessary for Rogue One to dovetail into A New Hope.
Based on the opening crawl of the first Star Wars movie, Rogue One should be congratulated for building a plot out of such sparse source material. Indeed, for a film that has undoubtedly many restrictions upon it, from three prequels and four sequels, it manages to tell its own unique story quite well. Intriguingly, for a film where the eventual outcome is a known quantity, it manages to build the suspense and tension quite well.
From a character perspective, the film is undoubtedly underwritten. The racially diverse cast is uniformly good, but the sheer number of characters lead to underserviced and underwritten motivations, for protagonist and antagonist alike. That isn’t to say there aren’t good character beats; Krennic is excellent with his self-conscious villainy and fear of inadequacy, and K-2SO steals every scene he is in. But we miss so much potential for great character development. Jyn is underserviced, and when K-2SO says to her in the final battle “you are constantly surprising”, you don’t feel like it is earned. We don’t get an idea of why Bodhi Rook has suddenly betrayed the Empire to fly to Saw Gerrera and deliver Galen Erso’s message; even though we had ample exposition in The Force Awakens of why Finn did a similar thing.
Indeed, the film could best be described as lurching, and perhaps this is a comment best explained by the fact that there were such extensive reshoots. A re-examination of the early trailers shows numerous scenes that never found their way into the finished film. Indeed, the final battle is clearly very different to how it originally was meant to play out. One of the most obvious omissions is Jyn Erso’s hero line from the trailer “This is a rebellion isn’t it? I rebel”; a line which doesn’t show up in the on-screen Rogue One.
Choices like these are clearly studio choices, and in many cases reduce the overall coherency of the film. Any bits which could be described as ‘lurchy’ seem to have corresponding hints of extra footage in the trailer. The early scene where Jyn is captured, the underwhelming final confrontation between Krennic and Jyn, and many more, all feel like they are missing a couple of beats, or are out of place in the fabric of the story. Exposition is what is really missing from the story. When Jyn is prognosticating to the assembled rebel alliance, it just doesn’t make any sense. Why would this girl, daughter of a man that every person in the Rebel base has reason to believe designed and built the Death Star, a machine that can destroy entire planets, be not only be given an audience with the entire leadership of the Rebel Alliance, but be followed into battle by a good portion of that alliance?
Sure, maybe Cassian, who spends significant time with her, believes her story and trusts her – but the remainder of the armed, militarised Rebel Forces has no reason to not lock her up and interrogate her for days on end.
We get no explanation of what Jyn Erso has been up to in the last few years; no indication that she knows anyone in the Rebel base. And it is frustrating. The entire film is mired in frustration because you know that there were reshoots, and you want to see the original. That is the whole point of choosing a unique director like Gareth Edwards; to realise a different vision for the first stand alone film. Yet, studio mandated reshoots to ‘bring it closer in tone with the franchise’ leave Rogue One feeling like a cut scene from a more important Star Wars film.
It is doubly frustrating because the bits we do see of Gareth Edwards’ vision are so promising. The film is stunningly picturesque, with some truly stunning shots. The early scenes with Galen Erso are spectacular, the semi-hidden Jedi statue on Jedha is beautiful and the AT-AT dominated beach scene is truly unique. The camera work, particularly in the battle scenes, is liberating and breaths fresh life into the typical Star Wars dog-fight. The imagery is so fresh and vibrant, and even the final scene’s take on Darth Vader, that directly dovetails into A New Hope is remarkable, in that it shows us a more savage, rage-fuelled Vader.
There is certainly something to be said for the CGI characters of the film, who tend to steal the show a little bit. The resurrected Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin is a scarily good special effect; a bit of computer wizardry that is almost out of the Uncanny Valley. K-2SO is even better – a sarcastic, morose robotic co-pilot for Cassian, he is the necessary snarky comedic relief in a film so dark. Indeed, his comedy is the perfect tone for the nihilist plot of Rogue One.
That is another point where Rogue One should be commended; in it’s unflinching, brutal finale. We are used to all of our heroes surviving every battle, so to see so much death on screen is a fresh-twist on the blockbuster genre. It is almost ironic, given that the film talks so much about hope, that in the end there is so little of it.
In the end, Rogue One does provide a fresh-take on the genre, and brings us down to character level with good performances, excellent CGI, some memorable characters and some stunning direction, but it is always undermined by a lurching, underwritten script and a lack of cohesive directorial vision that is almost definitely due to reshoots.
Defying numerous genre conventions, with a racially diverse cast and a fresh, visionary director, Rogue One should have been a slam dunk. Instead, it is a average-to-good war film that will leave you wishing studio’s would stop interfering with director’s visions.