Rogue One is an interesting case where it both feels like a very good response to the problems of The Force Awakens but it also kind of lacks the high points that made that movie great anyway.
Lets talk about what it does right first, which is mostly the latter half of the film. The final confrontation, the mission to get the plans for the Death Star, the reason this movie exists, is also the reason to see the movie. It’s spectacular, and achieves a scale you wouldn’t normally expect from what is essentially a side story. This movie deals in scale in a way that… I was gonna say The Force Awakens or the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but like it also just kinda doesn’t quite compare to anything in any movie. Although it is reminiscent of the space battle in Return of the Jedi, but it also has a whole different feel to it. The more modern effects work has a lot to do with that.
Rogue One is directed by Gareth Edwards who directed Godzilla (2014). This is a marked improvement on that outing. For all its problems, once Godzilla finally got to its action climax that stuff was great; it just took too long to get there and the way the movie teased it in ways that was infuriating. Rogue One does not have that problem; this is a movie where the goals are clear and the action is onscreen.
However, I don’t think that the characters here stand out all that strongly; particularly when compared to the new characters in The Force Awakens. That movie’s greatest strength was that its characters were immediately relatable and endearing. That is not the case in Rogue One. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) makes for a compelling on screen presence, but the script doesn’t do a great job at pulling you into her character emotionally.
And that’s the major problem with the movie as a whole: It’s just not great at pulling you in emotionally. A lot of time is spent establishing and explaining Jyn Erso’s backstory, we’re told and shown a bunch upfront. But somehow that still doesn’t quite inform the character that well. She’s kind of a cypher without her own clear motivations and goals. She’s a loner and an outsider, who’s conscripted into fighting the empire.
And there’s never quite that strong bond of chemistry and friendship between her and her companions to make up for that. There’s some pseudo-romance between her and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), but that’s kind of the most forced and least believable thing about the whole movie. Honestly the small arc she has with the droid K-2SO (Alan Tudk) works out the best as a bonding arc in the movie, but even that is just about dirt simple trust. The relationships established here feel very workmanlike: they get along well enough to move the plot and get the job done, but I don’t get the sense they’d hang out if left to their own devices.
Overall the characters are okay, but not great. They’re kind of all inherently disposable, which is part of the point, but the movie could have done a better job at pulling you into their personal struggle beyond being cogs in the struggle against The Empire.
This is a movie about plot and everything in it exists in service to that plot.
Rogue One does a very good job of taking classic Star Wars visual iconography and repurposing it into something new. I wish it had done the same with the music. With a lack of an opening title crawl, the lack of any classic Star Wars music the movie doesn’t quite feel like a Star Wars movie, at least not immediately. This is a movie with a different feel, and I get why they would want to go with a different kind of score, but I think a little bit of the old music could have gone a long way. Just look at the first teaser trailer for the movie for what I’m getting at.
Ultimately I like this movie because it is big budget spectacle that is legitimately spectacular. It’s particularly fulfilling because I felt like the large scale Space action was a weak point of The Force Awakens, to the point of basically being an afterthought during the climax. The way the final sequence of Rogue One escalates and escalates appeals to me at a deep level. Specifically the part of me that just wants to take toys and smash them together. There are plenty of other minor nitpicks (Darth Vader delivers a ridiculous one-liner, the digital recreation of Peter Cushing is in the movie way too much and is weird and distracting, etc.) but overall this is an easy recommended, especially at a theater on a big screen. I like that this movie commits to its idea all the way and ends very well.