A Beloved Franchise Goes Rogue

Twelve months ago, I entered a movie theater with anxious, but cautious, anticipation for the first installment in a new era of Star Wars films. JJ Abrams rewarded this anticipation with an exceptional piece of entertainment that also just so happens to be an excellent Star Wars flick.
Fast forward to this week, when I sat down for the first foray into a new realm of Star Wars entertainment, one the diverges from the episodic format of all the prior films, though still telling a story familiar to anyone who knows the universe even remotely. Reports of reshoots heightened the similarly cautious optimism that I felt and made me worry this may not live up to the example set the year before.
Was I wrong to worry?

(Here there be spoilers, matey.)

The answer is no, unfortunately. Because not only is Rogue One a bad Star Wars movie, it is an awful piece of filmmaking as well. This is what happens when talent and vision is lacking: you get people who have shown promise in past efforts failing to live up to said promise, and you get an ensemble cast lacking chemistry and chops whose best member is a voiced-over droid.
I walked out feeling like I did after the first viewing of Attack of the Clones: did I really just see something that awful? And while there will be an obligatory second viewing, there is no question in my mind of this being a bad movie. Though there is blame to go ‘round, I think there are three specific areas where this movie fell well short of any possible potential it may have had, and I’m choosing only the criticisms that have nothing to do with the Star Wars universe, so as not to seem like too much of a fanboy (like the glaring plot inconsistencies with A New Hope, the fact that rebels are apparently now completely unscrupulous and prone to infighting, or that after a silly cameo Walrus Man and his pal were somehow able to get off Jedha in short order before it was blown to dust).
Excessive Monologuing
Nothing kills the momentum of a good action thriller (not that this is one…) like a stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks monologue. This movie has at least three that I can think of, and all of them aren’t just shoehorned in there, they are also laughably inept. Whether it is Galen Urso prattling on during a hologram message while his daughter holds back tears, or the rebel captain talking about how every bad thing he has done needs to be worth something, the monologues are awkward, stilted, and poorly directed, focusing at length in reaction shots of people… not reacting. Gareth Edwards did well in his earlier film Monsters showing genuine emotions in the context of a sci-fi narrative, but he can’t make these formulaic speeches work here.
Bad (or Wasted) Casting
I’m seeing it already: “That Felicity Jones is really cute!” Yeah, but can she act? If this is Exhibit A, the answer is decidedly no. But the problem is, she is the only one given any scenes in which to really chew up some screen. Diego Luna gets some moments, but honestly, we’ve seen for years his utter inability to utter a convincing line of dialogue and here is no different. The visceral energy of Daisy Ridley a year ago is a stark contrast to the absence of anything close in these young actors.
That douchey photographer from
House of Cards does not make for
a rebel you’d root for.
But Ben Mendelsohn is quite frankly one of the best character actors working today , and has been brilliant in everything in which I’ve seen him – until now (fuck it, just watch Animal Kingdom already!!). Krennic is given nothing much to do except alternately act Imperial and like a petulant, tantrum-throwing child. Forrest Whitaker wheezes through scenes meant to be affecting which end up just being unbearable. And Mads Mikkelsen, who uttered almost no dialogue while driving the narrative of the superb Valhalla Rising gives a wooden and mawkish performance here. The young actors fail to carry their weight, but the accomplished ones are given short shrift.
The Whole Gawd-damn Plot
Everyone knew the premise going in: a ragtag group of rebels is going to steal the Death Star plans. But the plot itself? It takes over an hour to get within a sniff of that very premise. We get an opening expository pre-title sequence (by the way, the brief title sequence was a total misfire), then are launched from one world to another in quick succession to introduce us to the characters necessary to make the rest of the plot seem even half-functioning. But these characters are often throw-aways and in the context of any level of critical thinking, their presence feels forced.
The best example is the entire thread with Saw Gerrera and Bodhi. Saw is supposed to have protected Galen Urso’s daughter and this is the rationale for sending the defecting pilot to his lair. But then in the message Urso sends, he makes almost zero reference to Saw at all (see ‘Excessive Monologuing’ above), and spends a good deal of time saying that he figures his daughter is dead or in the hands of the Empire. Wait – so if Saw was to protect his daughter, and Galen worries she’s dead, thisis the guy you send this critically important message to?
After this lumbering first hour, the movie shifts into an overblown action flick, with incomprehensible decisions made by nearly every character. The Rebel Council elects as a group not to send anyone to get the Death Star plans. Then they find out a small team has taken it upon themselves to do so, and Mon Mothma’s reaction? Send the whole fucking fleet with no plan. Where’s Ackbar when you need him? At least this explains why Luke Skywalker was so quickly made a flight commander in Episode IV: they sent every good Starfighter pilot to get slaughtered on this mission.
Then, in the closing moments, we follow a Tie Fighter firing on the communications tower of an Imperial Base. Why? Could he actually see the person standing there while dodging X-Wings and hurtling about, and identify them as an enemy? And even if he could, does destroying part of your own base warrant firing on them from a fighter when you have no idea why they are up there? Apparently so, since Governor Tarkin takes the preposterous tactic of wiping out the entire base at the end of the film. The base that supposedly holds the archive of every Imperial technical document, just to kill a few rebels at a heavily armed and well-resourced facility. It doesn’t hold muster. Pretty much the entire plot here doesn’t.
In conclusion, the alarming thing here isn’t the poor product on the screen, it is the sheer number of areas in which this movie falls short of being a serviceable action thriller, never mind a launching pad for a new pantheon in cinema’s most lucrative franchise. I have to think that JJ Abrams’ absence from any role here is not coincidental to this, but I also hope that as a producer he is able to right the ship with next year’s awaited release.

My wife did point out this movie’s one saving grace: “At least everyone died, so we don’t have to worry about seeing another movie with these characters.”

NOTE: We saw this movie in IMAX 3D, and while I have been critical of IMAX’s commercialization push, this movie is a wholesale disaster in the format. The resolution was visibly below standard, with the lines being clearly observable in several scenes, and it was not filmed in any way with 3D in mind. I will never see another IMAX movie again outside of a traditional (i.e., not Lie-MAX) IMAX theater.