Rogue One: A mediocre EU novel on the big screen
While watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, I noticed that I was feeling something that I was unaccustomed to experiencing while watching a Star Wars movie. That feeling was boredom, which is an understandably unusual reaction to movies famous for space battles, blaster shootouts, and lightsaber duels. Still, that bored feeling was there, mingled with a puzzling level of disengagement from the movie’s storyline. Whatever one may have felt about the previous Star Wars theatrical releases, they all felt like events. This movie did not have that same feel, even from the start, as the famous opening crawl and music were absent. Rogue One felt to me like an underwhelming Extended Universe novel presented on the big screen to keep fandom interest high during the hiatus between installments of the new trilogy.
Originality in a franchise like Star Wars presents certain challenges, along with opportunities. As a stand-alone story, Rogue One had the opportunity to depart from the standard formula. As the blatant unoriginality and rehashed feel of The Force Awakens was a source of disappointment to me, I appreciate that Rogue One does, for the most part, present something different to the viewer. But credit for that can only take a fan and viewer so far, and then this movie must be judged on its own particular merits and shortcomings.
Back in the ’90s, I was a regular reader of Star Wars EU books. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command kicked off a period where a fan looking for more material involving the Star Wars characters they loved could only find new adventures in print. That period now feels like a long time ago, with all of the movies and TV shows we’ve gotten since, but I bring it up here because with the release of the prequels, the focus of EU books would sometimes be to fill in gaps between the movies, or to sometimes expound on various points and backstories in the prequels that desperately needed it, such as the political stuff with the Trade Federation and the Galactic Senate. I’m specifically thinking of books like Cloak of Deception and Labyrinth of Evil.
Rogue One tries to fill in the backstory about the Death Star, the plans related to it, and the capture of those plans by the Rebel Alliance, but the additions either aren’t interesting enough for what we get, or just detract from what we knew of it previously. To the second point, I’m thinking of the revelation that the Death Star’s critical design flaw revealed in A New Hope was put there deliberately as a form of resistance by one of the scientists working on it. Since the release of A New Hope, viewers could look at the vulnerability of a thermal exhaust port causing a catastrophic chain reaction as a symbol of the hubris of the Empire, in the way that the large and strong had overlooked their potential to be defeated by the smaller and seemingly insignificant. This movie takes that away to add development to two new and relatively uninteresting characters whom the viewer won’t see again after this movie.
As for the background on the Death Star, I feel like the recent movies have added so many bits and pieces to the backstory that it’s taken away from the awe and shock of its reveal in the first Star Wars. Attack of the Clones had a scene during the Battle of Geonosis where the initial plans for the Death Star are shown, Revenge of the Sith showed the early stages of its construction, and now we get even more background on the superweapon, including scenes of it being used prior to A New Hope. Sure, it’s an important part of Star Wars mythology, but too much background on the Death Star can lead to a diminishing of its impact as well.
Another way in which this movie reminded me of the EU was the character of the blind Force mystic Chirrut Imwe, played by Donnie Yen. Back during the early days of EU books, there were a lot of inclusions of fairly unique Jedi and Force-using characters, since there was obvious fan demand for it, and in the original trilogy, we’d only really seen three Jedi, and two of them were mostly retired. There was a great deal of opportunity to expand on Jedi and Sith history and mythology here, and Donnie Yen’s character is one of the few memorable and likable ones we meet in this film, and his backstory does take advantage of the setting, letting us know what might have happened with Force-sensitives or followers of the Jedi after the purge in Revenge of the Sith. Also, it’s interesting to see a character who follows the ways of the Force, but is not a Jedi.
Finally, just as some authors do in EU books, we get the inclusion of characters from the original trilogy as a way of connecting everything, and providing something familiar for fans alongside the elements that are strange and different. But quick asides and funny moments like the C-3PO and R2-D2 stuff aren’t really what I mean. I’m referring to the contrived way in which the ending feels like a rushed effort to bring the narrative right up against A New Hope, with the plans passed from rebel to rebel, and showing Darth Vader hunting the plans down himself, just as we see him doing at the beginning of A New Hope. It reminded me of the last few minutes of Revenge of the Sith, which featured an overt placing of certain characters in the positions they were supposed to occupy for A New Hope. There was a rushed effort to show Vader in the suit, Amidala having the twins, and Obi-Wan on Tatooine. There should be a level of trust between the writers, directors, and fans that makes such obvious connect-the-dots moments unnecessary. It may be done for fun at times to remind us of great moments and scenes that came before, but it can also take one out of the narrative, just as much as an unsubtle poke to the side.
Although I found Rogue One to be a disappointment and much like a rather forgettable EU novel brought to the big screen, there were still elements to enjoy. Chirrut Imwe is a great addition to the mythology that surrounds the Force, and one truly gets a sense of the serenity and peace that his beliefs and chosen path provide, and the portrayal of his friendship with Baze Malbus is effective as well. K-2SO is a worthy addition to the tradition of great droid characters in Star Wars, and his more dry, cynical manner is an interesting contrast to the humor of a character like C-3PO. From a narrative perspective, getting to see an early days, pre-New Hope look at the Rebel Alliance is great for a fan. Overall though, Rogue One feels like underwhelming filler, a forgettable footnote in a fantastic franchise.