The empire falls short

Laura Durkay takes a look at Rogue One, the latest offering in the Star Wars franchise.

Rebel fighters led by Jyn Erso (center) prepare for an attack in Rogue One: A Star Wars StoryRebel fighters led by Jyn Erso (center) prepare for an attack in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

WITHIN THE current blockbuster landscape of endless spinoffs and sprawling cinematic universes, you could certainly do worse than Rogue One. It's a stand-alone story in a well-established universe, following a scrappy band of revolutionary militants on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire's terrifying new weapon.

Pitched as a gritty ensemble war movie, Rogue One almost delivers, but ultimately doesn't give its cast of potentially interesting and admirable characters as coherent and satisfying a story as they deserve.

Conceptually, Rogue One has a lot going for it. It's both clever and radical, taking a footnote from the original trilogy and attempting to spin a compelling human story out of it. Rogue One is a movie about the extras in a wide shot, the ordinary people formerly consigned to a few lines in the opening crawl of someone else's story. When a character says, "There are no Jedi here," that's not just a line of exposition, but a statement of the movie's worldview.

Rogue One is also the most explicitly political Star Wars feature film to date. The movies of the original trilogy were essentially adventure quests woven into the backdrop of a revolution. The Empire and the Rebellion were always present, but the main characters often spent long chunks of screen time away from them, returning for a climactic combat set piece or two.

The movies' anti-totalitarian and anti-nuclear messages weren't exactly subtle, but they were always a frame for a story about fathers and sons, friends going on adventures together, and a young man learning who he is as a person. To say this is not to denigrate the films, but simply to accurately describe their structure.

Review: Movies

Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards, starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and Donnie Yen.

For example, in the triplicate battle at the end of Return of the Jedi, we know that the space dogfight outside the rebuilt Death Star and the land battle on Endor are both dramatically subordinate to what happens between Luke, Darth Vader and the Emperor. That's the dramatic center of the story, and the sequence is edited to reinforce that message. It's an inherently personal, familial story.

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ROGUE ONE'S set pieces are structured around an intelligence mission, an insurgent attack on occupying forces, a potential assassination attempt and a kamikaze guerrilla raid. The story is centered on the revolution through and through, and leads up to a climax in which the audience is thoroughly invested in rooting for a group of resistance fighters on a suicide mission.

Rogue One's visual language is blunt. As in The Force Awakens, our heroes are women and people of color (although the franchise could really use a major character who's both), and the villains are almost universally white men obsessed with power and wrapped in thinly veiled Nazi iconography.

Jedha, the desert planet that's the sight of the Death Star's first weapons test, is unambiguously Middle Eastern-looking. Director Gareth Edwards has referred to Jedha City as "the equivalent of Mecca and Jerusalem in the Star Wars world."

But if there's a political equivalent being referenced, it's Baghdad--with the U.S. in the position of the occupying stormtroopers, extracting resources by force, raiding homes and desecrating holy places, while the local resistance mounts guerrilla attacks and hides by blending into the civilian population.

If we keep this analogy in mind, the annihilation of Jedha is heavy with political meaning as well. While the destructive power of the Death Star was always abstractly scary, the cheesy long-distance poof of Alderaan in the original trilogy didn't quite manage to communicate the raw terror of the space-fantasy equivalent of an atomic bomb.

Even the blasts from Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens merely repeat the same effect with better CGI. But what's terrifying about a bomb is being under it, and Rogue One is smart enough to show us this, twice. (This shouldn't really be surprising for those who have seen Gareth Edwards's feature debut Monsters, which manages to be an eerily realistic depiction of life in a war zone and the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border while also containing aliens.)

If Jedha is Baghdad, then the visual metaphor for Scarif, where the film's climatic battle takes place, is Vietnam. (This isn't new territory for the Star Wars franchise, but even if the only Vietnam movies in which we're allowed to root for the Vietnamese are coded, metaphorical ones, a few more of them can't hurt.) Edwards first pitched Rogue One as a Vietnam war movie, and it's in the film's massive third-act battle that this analogy is most clear.

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THE VISUAL language of Star Wars has always relied on size to communicate the Empire's power--towering AT-ATs, massive star destroyers and moon-sized weapons versus the small ships and scrappy ground troops of the Rebellion--and the climax of Rogue One brings together all these elements in a truly impressive battle sequence.

The Battle of Scarif is by far the strongest part of the film, and it's when the potential power of Rogue One's thematic material is clearest. It's hard not to be moved when a squad of volunteers steps up for an impossible mission, or when character after characters sacrifices themselves in the hope that it will help their comrades succeed.

We can even get choked up about some anonymous guys doomed to a brutal death in a hallway--because it's clear how their actions are a small piece of the whole battle, and how this battle is a part of the eventual victory of the revolution.

Unfortunately, the first three-quarters of the movie don't live up to its impressive conclusion. The first hour, in particular, is a mess of dialogue-heavy exposition, setup that's somehow both overly complicated and too convenient, and conflicting character motivations.

Among the team of Rebels that end up on Scarif, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) stand out because their characters have strong worldviews and a pre-existing relationship that gives them some specificity. But poor Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, an Imperial pilot turned defector to the Rebellion, has almost nothing to do, serving as more plot device than three-dimensional character until nearly the end of the film.

Felicity Jones gives Jyn Erso her best effort, but the filmmakers can't decide on a clear motivation or arc for her character, and that in turn makes it unclear what to do with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who should start out as her foil and become her partner in battle by the end of the film.

Jyn fights her rescuers, but then goes along on a dangerous mission to Jedha, to find someone she feels betrayed her, with seemingly very little convincing. She bounces from being (understandably) angry at the Rebellion for attempting to assassinate her father and then killing him with friendly fire instead, to giving the Rebellion a motivational speech a few minutes later.

Her character, and her working relationship with Cassian, only snap into focus in the third act, when she has a concrete mission. But her bravery on Scarif and Jyn and Cassian's closeness in the final scenes feels like a payoff that hasn't been earned.

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IT'S UNCLEAR how much of the movie's messiness is due to the extensive reshoots it underwent, the demand to stuff in as many cool characters, new worlds, and callbacks to other parts of the franchise as possible regardless of narrative efficacy, or just lack of clarity about what the story's strongest qualities were.

Rogue One could have been a simple and incredibly powerful story about a character coming, or returning, to political consciousness, finding in a political movement the home and family she'd lost as a child, and being ultimately willing to sacrifice her life for her beliefs and her comrades. And you can see all those ideas in the film, but they don't quite get fleshed out in as satisfying a manner as they deserve.

For viewers with the political framework to imagine the missing pieces of Jyn's journey, or the knowledge of the Star Wars expanded universe to appreciate where Rogue One fits into a much larger imaginary geopolitical picture, or both, the film may be satisfying enough. But for those without one of these access points to the narrative, the storytelling weaknesses create a hefty barrier to caring about these characters.

And that's a shame, because if movies are useful for anything politically, it's to allow us to expand the scope of our empathy. Rogue One is a story in which we're invited to identify with insurgent political martyrs--the kind of people the other side would probably call zealots and terrorists. That's a worthy imaginative project, even if these characters exist in a galaxy far, far away.