ROGUE ONE, ONE of the – no doubt – many new spin offs of the Star Wars saga to come, is a pleasant, often surprising Christmas treat for fans of the saga. The story (developed by John Knoll, known for his work on Episodes IV and VI and “Avatar”) is a clever enough prequel that slots in between episodes III and IV. It’s centered around the development of the Death Star (by an underused Mads Mikkelsen), and sews the seeds of its later destruction by the Rebel forces. And it’s fun to meet some of the old favourites: R2D2 and C3PO, still bickering; an imperious Darth Vader (still James Earl Jones) flicking his enemies away like flies; and a surprise performance by an actor who died in 1994, and was clearly disinterred for the role. There are other familiar faces, but that would be giving away too many nice surprises.
Not unlike its recent predecessor, “Episode VII The Force Awakens”, director Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”) and his masterful team of designers (Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont) have managed to recreate that special look and feel so unique to the franchise. So, from the very first frame, you know you’re back a long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. Knoll’s story cleverly re-engages us with the familiar (the ubiquitous canon-fodder Storm Troopers, a flash of light saber, those kite-like space-craft from the Empire etc.), whilst slipping in a few sly newbies: the ‘hero’ droid for instance is, unlike the droids we’ve known, ruthlessly badass.
The problem with the movie is, apart from a blind Kung fu warrior (Donnie Chen, better known as the Ip Man, as the first Chinese in the saga. Such is the power of that audience!), the lead characters exist in a charisma-free zone. The wonderful relationships that formed the heart of the franchise – Han Solo and Princess Leia, Rey and Finn – are absent from this one. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, and her co-rebel, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna from “Elysium”) run and shoot and exhort fellow rebels throughout the story, but as people, they’re less interesting than the droids. They’re as dull as dishwater.
It’s the great characters that gave George Lucas’ star-gazing mumbo jumbo, the rich thrill and excitement that seduced the world: Han Solo’s rogue-ish charm, Darth Vader’s menace, Luke Skywalker’s innocence. And in its reinvention, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega wowed the world with their over the top charm. But in “Rogue One”: nothing. Nada. Zip. Jyn and Cassian are bland, video game action figures, for whom one can really feel very little. They neither bleed nor breathe; and tiny Felicity’s exhortation of bulky rebel fighters just comes across as fairly ludicrous.
The fault probably isn’t theirs. It’s the writing. Episode VII had the writing talents of Lawrence Kasdan (various Star Wars versions as well as “Raiders of the Lost Arc”), Michael Arndt (“The Hunger Games”, “Toy Story 3”, “Little Miss Sunshine”) and of course J.J. Abrams (creator of “Lost” and “Alias”). This informed the characters and gave the whole enterprise the feel of “real-ness”. But the “Rogue One” combination of director Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla” really?) and writers Chris Weitz (“Cinderella” and “The Golden Compass”) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne franchise) was just not up to the task. The dialogue is functional and leaden. Not real words voiced by not real people.
What’s also missing (and is so much a part of the soul of this franchise) is John Williams’ stirring score. There are traces of it here and there, but Michael Giacchino’s version of the Star Wars’ anthems is as flat as the dialogue.
Apparently there was a massive amount of reshoots after the first rough cut was shown. So somebody must have realized – too late – that there was a problem in the Empire.
It was not a problem that they managed to solve