CAUTION: SPOILERS AFOOT!
The movie starts soooooo bad. But then it gets soooo good, soooo quick.
If you can't already tell, I'm a tad conflicted when it comes to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The first half, with its endless parade of new words, anemic character snippets and boring exposition is so shockingly ham-fisted that it nearly sinks the entire picture. But then suddenly everything jumps into hyperspace and the flick becomes incredibly thrilling. I can't recall the last time I watched a movie that was so... schizophrenic.
Ever since I saw Rogue One I've been trying to pin down precisely why it starts off so poorly. I think screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy along with director Gareth Edwards should have given us more time with Felicity Jones's Jyn Erso, the way we had time establishing Luke in Star Wars.
Yeah, sorry, fuck that Episode IV / New Hope shite, btw.
The only characterization we get for Jyn is that her dad was taken away, her mom was killed and she ended up in a hole until a family friend pulled her out. Then we smash cut to twenty years into the future and see her in jail. We don't see why she got arrested or what she's been doing to warrant an arrest. We just get a fully-formed, bitter, nihilistic "rebel" who understandably wants revenge on the Empire. Otherwise we know precious little else about her.
Diego Luna's Cassian Andor doesn't fare much better. We first see him meeting with a skittish informant during the first half's endless cavalcade of clunky, workmanlike planetary stops. After getting the information he needs, he casually blasts the dude in the back to shut him up. The idea of a morally-ambiguous Rebel Alliance is super interesting to me, which is why I was super disappointed when this wasn't explored at all. In fact, the only insight we get into Cassian's background is some vague talk later on about how he's been doing this "since he was six". Well, c'mon...pull up a space chair, pour yourself a blue milk, sit down and tell us all about it! What, no time for that? Okay, then, on to the next planet!
Instead of investing time in our two leads we get these bland little vignettes meant to set up the supporting characters. Riz Ahmed as Imperial pilot defector Bodhi Rook really gets screwed here. Armed with a decent script he really could have been the flinty, grudgingly-accepted part of an inevitable triumvirate between Jyn and Cassian. But, no, instead he's flash-sketched with some throw-away lines of dialogue just like everyone else. We're meant to believe that he was inspired by Jyn's dad, Galen Erso (stoically played by Mads Mikkelsen) but we don't see why. It kills me to to say this, but Rogue One has a downright deplorable "show, don't tell" track record.
Oh, and don't tell me that this was in Catalyst or some other shit. I shouldn't need to read a fucking tie-in novel to give a shit about the characters.
Even when a guerrilla-style action set piece finally meandered into the first half of the film, I just kinda sat there feeling disengaged. Watching wave after wave of extras dressed like storm troopers falling down on cue, I actually started to feel kinda sorry for the boys in white. Which is something that I never felt a twinge of while watching the original trilogy. I hated the storm troopers for killing Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and for blasting at my on-screen friends at every opportunity. Here the stormtroopers just seem like just poor, sad jobbers out on patrol. To see them slaughtered in endless waves by interchangeable characters is oddly wince-inducing.
I think the first half of the film really could have benefited from excising some of the superfluous characters. First off, I would have chucked Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera under the walker, since he's only there to pull Jyn out of the bunker, torture Bodhi with an incongruous Hentai tentacle porn monster and then expire in a scene that's less noble and more script convenience. I get the impression he's mainly there to provide some connective tissue to the Rebels cartoon.
Despite of the fact that both characters are likely there just to appeal to the emerging Chinese theater-going market, I wouldn't want to jettison Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus and particularly Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe. Mainly because both of these guys make me feel like I'm watching West End Game's Star Wars: the Role Playing Game - The Movie. Unfortunately, they're given so little screen time that they end up being about as deep as the two-line character template descriptions in that venerable, ol' RPG. And frankly, that sucks, since I love the idea of a guy who's Force sensitive but doesn't have any direct connection to light sabers and Jedi lore.
All of this makes me wonder why I didn't connect with these character very much, and I think I know why. In addition to my aforementioned case for Luke in Star Wars, we don't even meet Han Solo until about a third of the way into that same film. So why is Han so memorable and why do I have to keep looking up the names of the characters Rogue One over and over again? Well, the devil is in the details, kiddies.
As soon as Harrison Ford shows up on screen we can tell that he's a boundless font of charisma. The script isn't afraid to take a knee for a moment and let the characters talk about more than just the next action item on their galactic things-to-do list. By the time the Falcon reaches 'splody Alderaan, Ford has taken the on-point dialogue and presented it such a way as to illustrate Han as a cynical, cocksure, blowhard who exudes calm cool and undeniable skill.
The same goes for Leia. Beyond talking sass to Tarkin and Vader throughout the entire film, we feel as if we've known her for years after she's sprung from that Death Star detention block. Carrie Fisher's spunky performance, on screen verve and flinty dialogue speaks volumes about the kind of person she is: I.E. she's highly-capable, no-nonsense and physically incapable of taking shit from anyone. Except for maybe Jyn, no-one in Rogue One gets the same consideration.
And I honestly feel bad for young people who mistake on screen bad-assery and a few casual lines of dialogue as character development. I related to Luke in Star Wars not because he was male, but because he wanted to get away from boring ol' Tatooine. He craved adventure and excitement and he also had some interesting flaws to deal with. I liked Rey in The Force Awakens for many of the same reasons, but ultimately she was so fucking perfect at everything that she didn't come across to me as a real, three-dimensional character.
Poor characterization and muddled first act aside, Rogue One miraculously "switches on" midway through and becomes the Star Wars movie of my dreams. Ben Mendelsohn effectively stamps around as Inspector Orson Krennic, having encounters with established villains that makes perfect sense within the movie's timeline. Regardless of what you may hear to the contrary, I think these scenes are highly effective and used sparingly.
The infiltration of Scarif base and the subsequent ground and space battle are undeniably thrilling. The special effects are absolutely exquisite in the sense that everything, especially the Star Destroyers, actually look like plastic models. The irony isn't lost on me but I should stress that the tactile environments, physical props and on-set droids and creature really give the film that classic "lived in" Star Wars look.
Now, some people are bitching that these cameos and call backs are gratuitous fan service but I tend to pronounce "fan service" as "continuity". Look, if I was making a film set in this classic rebellion era, a herd of wild Banthas couldn't prevent me from include some of my favorite classic characters. The only issue is that some of them show up as distractingly-obvious CGI models and spout quippy one-liners that comes across as slightly out of character.
I also wish that they'd been more creative on the design side of things. With this being the earliest film in the rebellion era, it was the perfect opportunity to showcase some technological evolution. In other words, it would have been great to see prototype AT-ST's and AT-AT's instead of seeing this same exact things that pop up later on in the trilogy.
And trust me, there's no shortage of awesome shit in the Lucasfilm archives; just a quick glance through my old Empire Strikes Back art book proves that! Instead, the visual impact of these vehicles will be diminished somewhat when they pop up later on in the saga. But, hey, I guess the masses might be puzzled by something familiar but not identical, so I guess we should just spoon feed them exactly what they want, amirite?
Admittedly, the last act of the film is a jaw-dropping tour de force, no pun intended. Jyn and Cassian go through pure hell to recover those data tapes, including having to deal with a mini-game that looks like an homage to George Lucas's THX-1138. All of this is juxtaposed against a backdrop of brutal, unflinching combat that might result in hordes of regretful parents wishing that they'd just stayed home on Christmas Day. This is no more apparent than in the agonizing fate of Alan Tudyk's appropriately-emo droid K-2SO who's denouement will leave no eye in the house thoroughly moistened.
And that's one genuine positive I can say about the film. All bets are off. None of these characters appear in future continuity so everyone is expendable and the stakes are pretty darned high. More the pity, then, that the script didn't give us more time with these people. It would have made the final act feel less like a hollow spectacle and more like an impactful Greek tragedy.