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The Star Wars Machine Rolls On

Although spectacular to look at, Rogue One fails to take on a life of its own

There’s never been a Star Wars movie as simply beautiful to look at as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Whatever his other flaws as a director, Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) has set the bar on just how breathtaking this universe can be. The varied landscapes glimmer; a Rebel ship sets down gracefully on a desert world; a moon-sized weapon eclipses a distant sun. Costumes are practical; locations feel heavy and real.

In terms of setting, Rogue One presents a galaxy I’d like to visit — maybe when it’s a little safer. 

Built on a single reference in Star Wars: A New Hope, Rogue One tells the story of how the plans for the first Death Star were stolen. Assuming you’ve seen A New Hope at some point in the last 40 years, you know to some degree where this story goes. What the film needs to do, then, is invest us in the ordinary rebels who pulled off the theft.

And what the movie tries to give us in this rag-tag team is potentially really interesting: They’re a group of near-strangers who’ve had their lives disrupted by politics. From the former guardians of a now-sacked Jedi temple (Wen Jiang and Donnie Yen, who are absolute highlights) to a reprogrammed Imperial droid, they’ve all had their lives reshaped by the fight against the Empire.

But there’s no time to explore this idea. As previous films have shown the villains’ perspectives, so must this one, even though Orson Krennic is nothing more than a power-hungry middle manager, no matter how hard Ben Mendelsohn tries. Time wasted on his character would’ve been better spent developing Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose past makes her a key resource for the Rebellion. 

Jones, like her castmates, does the best she can (in one teary scene, she outdoes most of the rest of the film), but the characters are all so thin that it’s easier to project onto Jyn what you’d like her to be than it is to see what the movie intends for her. Is she a young woman galvanized into politics through personal conflict? Is she an opportunist with a soft spot for her dad? Or does she just happen to be the one for the job because of her scientist father (played by an underused Mads Mikkelsen)? 

Without a strong central character, Rogue One’s theme is a muddle: The film can’t decide if it’s an uplifting story about ordinary people making a difference or a tale trying to darken the war part of Star Wars through Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, who regrets doing terrible things. Or is it an exercise in nostalgia, a beautiful trip back to the beginning that pushes your (and my) fan-buttons but not resonate once you leave the theater?

As the Rogue One draws to its utterly stunning space-battle close, it seems to feel it needs to hold hands with A New Hope — when it really just needs to pass the baton. (That said, the re-instituted footage of female pilots, whose scenes were cut from Return of the Jedi, does something to address Rogue One’s massive gender imbalance.)

Everything has to be worth it so that we can go into A New Hope feeling energized, even if the story being told is full of loss. So much effort goes toward establishing Rogue One’s part of the Star Wars universe that the film doesn’t take on a life of its own. These characters deserve greater consideration, but the war machine — and the Star Wars machine — must roll on. (Regal Valley River Center, Cinemark 17, Carmike 12)