Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feels like the studio took a rough draft of the script, set a release date for as early as possible, and put it to film. Almost every single problem with the film comes down to rough writing that could have been smoothed out with revisions. Whether due to self-imposed time constraints or too many cooks, a good chunk of this story comes across as half-baked, the kind of thing a film student would write for a passing grade.

This Star Wars story was pitched by John Knoll. You might recognize John Knoll’s name. He’s the visual effects artist on the original Star Wars film, as well as Rogue One,  and that certainly shows in some of the set-pieces. But he’s not exactly someone you’d tap to write a story with as many characters and dialogue heavy scenes as this film.

Then Gary Whitta, the writer behind The Book of Eli and After Earth, ran with the idea and produced this mess. Given his previous films were critically slammed, it’s befuddling that he was given the job for one of the biggest properties thus far in human history. The story contains the marks of an amature: bland characters, poorly defined motivations, and no sense of place.

But those aren’t the only two people that need to be put in the hot seat for the poor writing. Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy adapted this story to the screen and they do a piss poor job. Chris Weitz is most notable for writing and directing The Golden Compass, a film so inept that it bankrupted New Line Cinema. It’s unlikely he’d do the same for juggernaut Disney, but there’s a reason studio killers like Michael Cimino go off to make tiny projects after epic flops.

And then there’s Tony Gilroy, the only defensible writer attached to the project. He helped adapt The Bourne Identity and then would go on to write on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum as well. All three some of the most well-written action films of the century. And for a more grounded take on Star Wars, this is the kind of writer you get for your story. I’m guessing he was the last one to touch the script and, by the time he got it, it might have been too late to fix anything.

What’s most telling is that the credits show that none of these writers worked together. It started in the mind of one, was passed on to the next and next down the line until the resulting turd was produced. The worst part is that Disney could have let director Gareth Edwards write his own script. His work Monsters is an excellent film with likable characters and memorable spectacles.

It’s Gareth Edwards that saves this film. Almost every good moment in this film comes down to strong direction and a good sense of set-pieces. That’s what happens when you hire a proven director who also has a background in visual effects. The result is the best action sequence in all of the Star Wars film by a wide, wide margin.

The final act is one long battle fought in space, on the ground, and inside a facility. It becomes this mix of dog-fighting, WWII style fighting on a beach, and action adventure. Every beat and every shot moves the action forward into this master class in blockbuster action filmmaking. There’s even a fantastic scene with Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) that might be one of the most pandering bits of fan service in film this year, but also is one of the most dramatic and visually striking scenes of the year.

It’s a shame that such magnificent direction comes with such a poor cast of characters. Protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has all the charisma of a piece of wet loaf of bread and she plays against Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who may as well be a cardboard cutout of Han Solo.

Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang play a couple of passable side-characters: a force-sensitive blind monk and a gnarly mercenary. But the show-stealer is K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). He’s a snarky robot who doesn’t much like Jyn and comes up with these cold, menacing lines that are a riot. Given how bland and inept the writing is, one almost wonders if Alan Tudyk just ad-libbed all the lines because they’re feel like the work of only one person when compared to the dry, witless dialogue everyone else mutters.

Another horrible character, but for different reasons, is Grand Moff Tarkin. Peter Cushing is rolling in his grave as his soul must endure the atrocity of having his face horribly computer generated onto Guy Henry’s body. His face looks rubbery and fake, especially considering how the lighting hits the other actor’s faces. When he speaks, it hits the uncanny valley like a T-16 skyhopper chasing down a womp rat. The film could have found creative ways to shoot around the effects or casted someone who looked like a young Peter Cushing.

Beyond the direction and K-2SO, there’s one more redeeming thing about the film: it’s exploration of morality. One of the annoying things about the Star Wars films is how morally simplistic they are. Jedies are flawless guardians of all that is good and Sith are power-hungry monsters that will kill puppies without a second thought.

Some expanded universe Star Wars stories have explored morally gray areas (see Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords), but the films are always childish in their morality. Rogue One posits that Rebels sometimes do horrible things and not everyone in The Galactic Empire is pure evil. There’s this gray area in-between where most people exist.

For example, Jyn’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is a former Imperial scientist who is brought back into the Empire to work on the Death Star. He’s a good man, but he knows that if he doesn’t build it, someone else will. Plus, he builds the weakness into the system as his revenge on the Empire.

Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is another great example. He’s a loyal Imperial officer who believes building the Death Star is a good thing. He thinks it is the only way to keep the planets in line and establish peace. Albeit, that peace is under the fear of annihilation, but he’s not some warmongering monster that wants to blow up planets of innocent people. He wants peace by any means necessary.

On the Rebel’s side, Cassian is this smarmy character who has no qualms murdering innocent, unaffiliated people if it helps the Rebel Alliance. He’s not ashamed to admit he’s done horrific, evil things in the name of the rebellion, but he believes his acts are justified. And that’s how one crafts honest, interesting morality: each character believes his or her actions to be justifiable even if he or she recognizes some of those actions are horrific.

With direction this strong, the poor writing is that much more of a tragedy. A few good revisions and some peppier characterizations and dialogue would have gone a long way. Also, a 90 minute cut would make this film roll along at a brisk pace and drop a lot of the fat.

The spinoffs have the potential to be satisfying, self-contained stories in a compelling sci-fi universe, but Disney needs to hire better writers. The upcoming Han Solo project has father and son Lawrence and  taking a crack at it and Lawrence has proven himself with both Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark under his belt. Here’s hoping that project is more fruitful than Rogue One.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing