Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
A note: the opening of my review of Rogue One concerns a specific character that some may consider a spoiler. I personally don't think it is, as this character has been talked about in the lead-up to the film's release, and its use in the film is not handled in a particularly spoiler-y way. Other critics have approached this aspect of the film as they would a spoiler though, so I thought I would throw this quick disclaimer at the top for the spoiler-averse out there.
Anyway, on to my review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
It is impossible to give a fair assessment of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story without addressing the computer generated elephant in the room. Peter Cushing, the actor who played Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, died in 1994. Tarkin's chief purpose in the film was to command the Death Star, and since the plot of Rogue One tells the story of the rebel spies who stole its plans as described in the crawl that opened episode IV, it stands to reason that Tarkin would be involved in some fashion.
And boy howdy is he ever.
It's difficult to speculate about what led director Gareth Edwards and producer Kathleen Kennedy to decide to bring Peter Cushing back from the dead as a computer generated likeness to once again "play" Grand Moff Tarkin 39 years after Star Wars and 22 years after his death. Conventional wisdom would dictate that the part would just be recast, and there are plenty of venerated British actors who could do the work. This happens to film franchises all the time. Just ask Michael Gambon (or Don Cheadle, or even Genevieve O'Reilly, who plays the recast Mon Mothma in this very film). It seems, then, that the motivations were rooted purely in nostalgia, rooted in that need to make hardcore Star Wars fans titter in their seats in the theater because Tarkin is back and Tarkin is a beloved character and Tarkin looks like he used to look like and maybe that gut reaction would be diminished if a living actor were cast in the role.
Here's the problem, though: CG Tarkin looks dreadful. He has dead eyes and his lips don't move quite right, and while technology has improved by leaps and bounds, you still can't make a computer generated human look like a real one especially when it's surrounded by actual flesh and blood actors. There's a reason the most beloved and successful computer characters are the likes of Gollum from Lord of the Rings or Caesar from the new Planet of the Apes franchise. They aren't human. It's uncanny valley syndrome in overdrive, and while the actual technical achievement of the character is impressive, it looks so ghoulish next to actual humans that the scene's spell is broken instantaneously whenever CG Tarkin arrives on the scene. And this isn't a cameo; Tarkin is involved in multiple lengthy scenes throughout Rogue One. He's inescapable. He's a member of the cast. What's distressing about this choice is what's distressing about a lot of these choices made since Marvel conquered the cinematic landscape: it's actively prioritizing fan service over film quality.
We're witnessing the Marvelization of the Star Wars franchise. When Disney purchased the rights, they announced their intention to release a Star Wars film every year. I'm sure that frequency will increase as each film crosses the billion dollar threshold in global box office receipts, and that necessitates films like Rogue One (and 2018's Han Solo anthology film) to exist to bridge the gaps. Kathleen Kennedy and the brass at Disney have taken the Marvel method to heart here, making Rogue One a rousing blockbuster full of standard structuring, sardonic, Whedon-esque comic relief and dozens of seeds planted to reference or spin off into other films in the canon. It is essentially a twist on The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent 7 (or, perhaps, Guardians of the Galaxy), centering on a band of rebels fighting against impossible odds on a sure suicide mission to infiltrate the Empire and come away with the map to their one glaring weakness. Thus screenwriters Chis Weitz and Tony Gilroy have to fashion a puzzle piece out of whole cloth to fit neatly between episodes three and four to inform how the rebels managed to get their upper hand.
And in general, the design of the plot is solid, creating a conflicted Imperial engineer (Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps the most unlikely Disney franchise actor) who runs from his post out of fear of the awesome power of the weapon he created, shielding his daughter from an evil Imperial director (Ben Mendelsohn, perhaps also the most unlikely Disney franchise actor) who brings him back into the fold to finish the Death Star against his will. Years later, said daughter has grown into Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a scrappy survivor drafted into the rebel army to steal the plans to her father's weapon, motivated by the possibility of rescuing him from his predicament. A ragtag team begins to develop as she allies with Cassian (Diego Luna), who is basically Han Solo, his sarcastic reprogrammed Imperial droid (Alan Tudyk; imagine C-3PO merged with HK-47 from the Knights of the Old Republic games), an old blind force sensitive monk (Donnie Yen) and his heavy artillery-wielding companion (Wen Jiang). They are further aided by a grizzled old Rebel veteran who helped raise Jyn before being exiled for his extremist practices (Forest Whitaker, dropping by from the set of the next Mad Max, apparently) and a defected Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed, giving what might be the best performance of the cast).
Rogue One sets itself up as a war movie, and it feels like one, much more so than the seven other films in the franchise that have the word "Wars" in the title. There are moments of thrilling action, but they take place on the ground, staged much more like Saving Private Ryan than The Force Awakens, with grand battles between armies and guerrilla warfare carrying the brunt of the carnage instead of one-on-one lightsaber sword fights. The Stormtroopers still can't shoot straight, but they can use grenades with deadly efficiency. The body count of Rogue One is high, and it feels weightier and more meaningful than in Star Wars past. This is where Edwards is at his best, bringing in some of the shock and awe and scale that made his Godzilla surprisingly effective, utilizing the horrors of war to build sympathy for his characters. The final major battle, pitched against a tense base infiltration, is the true highlight of the film. It's the one time it feels like it has the option to stretch its legs a bit and take advantage of the filmmaker they hired. It's a shame the rest of it rarely feels that way.
There's a glass ceiling in place over movies like Rogue One. They are assets first and films second, meticulously designed to appeal to as many people as possible and generate as many dollars as possible. So maybe it's not a glass ceiling. Maybe it's more of a glass train tunnel, propelling these films ever forward without the opportunity to stray from the path. Maybe something will break it some day, but that day has yet to come. It feels so restrictive watching franchise movies in the Age of Marvel, so manicured and mannered, so devoid of real spirit and surprise. It becomes about doing what you can within the framework you are given for a film whose release date was determined a year before its script was written, which is not a healthy environment in which to make a great film. There are minor successes (Doctor Strange was solid) and abysmal failures (most of them directed by Zack Snyder), but the formula for internalizing all of this external studio and marketing and international box office pressure and making it into something truly transcendent and worthwhile doesn't seem to exist yet. And after eight years of this, a breaking point has been reached. You can see the strings being pulled everywhere you look.
Plenty of people will like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It will challenge or break box office records. It's designed to evince these emotions from its audience. But this is a film utterly lacking in ambition, content to offer its fan service, content to use its broadly drawn characters as Mad Libs archetypes within a crushingly familiar story structure. It's parasitic. It's polished and well made because it has to be, and it's far more concerned with cynically resurrecting the corpse of Peter Cushing to pop a nostalgia reaction than considering how callous and calculated it feels. Rogue One is an okay movie. The characters are fine, the acting is fine, the action is fine. But fine isn't good enough. Not anymore. We've had enough fine. We shouldn't be content to settle with fine.